Alexander Goehr 70th Birthday Concert

… around Stravinsky, Op.72 [World premiere]
The Law of the Quadrille, Op.41
Quintet ’Five Objects Darkly’, Op.62*
Piccola Musica Notturna*
Ophelia Dances*
Three Pieces for string quartet

Roderick Williams (baritone)
Nash Ensemble conducted by Martyn Brabbins*

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 27 March, 2002
Venue: Purcell Room, London

Invariably to be tagged as a member of ’The Manchester School’, Alexander Goehr – like fellow-students Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle and Elgar Howarth (John Ogdon sadly deceased) – has developed an individual career to be discussed on its own terms. One thinks of outstanding scores such as Metamorphosis/Dance (Op.36) and Sinfonia (Op.42); Goehr’s Handel-related commission for last year’s Proms was a highlight.

It was nice that Harrison Birtwistle was among the audience for this celebratory concert; so too Hugh Wood who is also 70 this year (on 27 June). Goehr reaches 70 on 10 August – so there’s still a chance of an anniversary CD or two. A coupling of two recent pieces, Schlussgesang (for viola and orchestra) and the Goya-inspired Colossos or Panic would be welcome – perhaps from NMC?

Prolific in many genres, Goehr is stylistically wide-ranging; this is underpinned by rigorous but not didactic methods.The composer’s own joy in his craft, his travelling along different paths, is especially appealing.

Goehr begins … around Stravinsky with a solo violin prelude, ’Dushkin’, named after the violinist Stravinsky composed his violin-music for. This segues neatly into Stravinsky’s own Pastorale (violin and wind quartet) and is followed by ’Introduzione and Rondo’ for, respectively, violin and the quintet that “remembers and refers” to Pastorale. Although Goehr intends no imitation of Stravinsky, it seems to me, in Goehr’s more ’serial’ treatment that Pastorale has undergone the sort of transformation Stravinsky himself might have prepared in his final years. I hope that Goehr will take that as a compliment.

In The Law of the Quadrille, Goehr sets prose by Franz Kafka (’Wedding preparations in the country’). The song-cycle’s expression is analogous to Berg and Schoenberg and their antecedents; the German text helps find the locus of the music. Roderick Williams brought much feeling to the musical exposition and to the meaning to the words; and communicative generosity, not least to the final song’s interior loveliness. In placement, the piano’s envoi reminds of the close of Schumann’s Dichterliebe. As ever, pianist Ian Brown was the master of the demands placed upon him in a part both complementary to the text and ’complete’ in itself.

Of Goehr’s confreres, Dallapiccola’s reduction of his ’night music’ for string trio, celesta, harp, flute, oboe and clarinet ravished the ear in its exquisitely judged, rarefied textures. Likewise Oliver Knussen’s Ophelia Dances – for a similar ensemble: delete harp and oboe, add cor anglais, horn and piano – with its acutely-woven lyric refinement that increases in activity and incident until the celesta signals a becalmed ending. Stravinsky’s Three Pieces were given a charged reading by Marianne Thorsen, Elizabeth Wexler, Lawrence Power and Paul Watkins, as vibrant in the vivid characterisation of the first two ’studies’ (as they became in orchestral guise) as they were concentrated in the frozen wastes of the last one.

Goehr’s Op.62 Quintet – in five movements for bass clarinet, horn, violin, viola and piano – is a substantial 30-minute piece, one complex enough to require a conductor. The ’Five Objects Darkly’ refers to the five versions that Goehr has made of an extract from the piano part of Mussorgsky’s Sunless. These appear throughout and possibly account for the Quintet’s omnipresent Russian underlay. From the formality of the opening passacaglia to the final dances via frenetic burlesque elements and athletic vigour, ’Five Objects Darkly’ is a richly personal score that in its emotional intensity reminds of Shostakovich. I wonder if Goehr will take that as a compliment!

The Quintet was an impressive way to end the concert, which, the Purcell Room’s funereal lighting aside, was an auspicious reminder of Goehr’s succinct and economic writing. His refinement invites one to listen, his total lack of pretence is refreshing, and further pieces are keenly anticipated.

More Alexander Goehr links:

  • an interview with the composer here
  • a review of a 2002 Proms commission here
  • a review of Three Japanese Operas here.

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