Little Symphony, Op.15
String Quartet No.2, Op.23
Piano Trio, Op.20
London Symphony Orchestra
Norman Del Mar
Allegri Quartet [Hugh Maguire & David Roth (violins), Patrick Ireland (viola) & Bruno Schrecker (cello)]
Orion Trio [Ian Brown (piano), Peter Thomas (violin) & Sharon McKinley (cello)]
Little Symphony recorded 15 August 1964 in Wembley Town Hall; recording information for chamber works not supplied
Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler
Reviewed: July 2008
CD No: LYRITA SRCD.264
Duration: 71 minutes
As the son of the German conductor Walter Goehr, Alexander Goehr (born 1932) could scarcely have wanted a more advantageous upbringing. In the early 1950s, as a student at what was then the Royal Manchester (now the Royal Northern) College of Music he was one of the so-called “Manchester Group”, along with fellow-composers Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, pianist John Ogdon and trumpeter (later conductor) Elgar Howarth. Goehr later studied with Messiaen for a year in Paris. His music has not received the degree of attention given to his colleagues, but he has been an unobtrusively distinguished presence as a composer and teacher for many years.
His Little Symphony was written in 1963 in memory of his father, and first performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Norman Del Mar, who went on to make this recording the following year (coupled on the original Philips LP with Michael Tippett’s Concerto for Orchestra conducted by Colin Davis). It is scored for a small orchestra – flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, pairs of oboes and horns, tuba and strings – but although the orchestral forces may be restricted this is a more substantial (28 minutes) and imposing piece than its title might suggest. It also contradicts the belief that music based on serial technique can never, by its very nature, be expressive.
It begins with a brief chorale-like movement for strings. This provides the theme for the following set of Variations, each one differently scored. They cover a wide emotional range, from the turbulent to the gently intimate. After a short scherzo, the finale draws the symphony’s threads together, culminating in a moving quotation from a favourite work of Goehr’s father, Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1, before the gentle final bars take us full-circle, back to the symphony’s opening.
Del Mar and the LSO show a keen awareness both of the work’s overall structure and also its moment-to moment changes of mood, pace and instrumentation.
The two chamber works date from a few years later. String Quartet No.2 (1967), in three movements, also opens with a Theme and Variations, beginning in probing chromatic counterpoint that recalls the opening of Bartók’s String Quartet No.1. A movement of wide-ranging textures and instrumental colour, it is followed by an edgy scherzo, and a finale that begins in quiet contemplation, reaches a sudden agitated climax near the end, and ends as quietly as it began. The Allegri Quartet gave the premiere, and its performance here has a profound sense of commitment.
Yehudi Menuhin commissioned the Piano Trio. He along with his pianist-sister Hepzibah and cellist Maurice Gendron gave the first performance at the 1966 Bath Festival. Variation technique is, again, the basis of the first of the two movements. A dance-like figure for the strings and a chiming pattern on the piano are recurring elements, punctuating the blunt energy, caprice and lyricism of the music’s wider explorations. The second movement is predominantly slow and introspective. The piano’s dramatic intervention, about halfway through, provokes a brief, animated response from the strings, before the music returns to its earlier mood, leading to a daringly understated conclusion. The Orion Trio is completely inside the music, the musicians particularly skilful in sustaining the second movement’s fragile intensity.
The recordings have scrubbed up well and hardly show their age though the Little Symphony does get a touch opaque at times.
This is music that refuses to play to the gallery or make a show of its integrity. It simply gets on with the business of saying what it has to say, as economically as possible. Allow yourself to be drawn into its distinctive expressive world; you will be well rewarded.