Prom 67: 10th September – Goehr Premiere

A Survivor from Warsaw
Alexander Goehr
… second musical offering (GFH 2001) [first complete performance]

  • Overture with Handelian Air [Halle Opera House commission: UK premiere]
  • Concerto with Double [BBC commission: world premiere]
Vaughan Williams
A Sea Symphony (Symphony No.1)

Sanford Sylvan (narrator)
Joan Rodgers (soprano)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone)

BBC Symphony Chorus
Philharmonia Chorus
Trinity College of Music Chamber Choir

BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Forty years ago, Alexander Goehr received his first Proms performance, and it may well be possible to trace his musical development over the eleven works performed since then. Back in 1985, … a musical offering (JSB 1985) … had its premiere at the Proms and now, … second musical offering (GFH 2001) has been unveiled here.

Not so much a sequel, rather a continuation of Goehr’s preoccupation with the Baroque as a touchstone for his own compositional explorations. The two parts (performable separately) of this 33-minute work complement each other on a number of levels. The first, Overture with Handelian Air, subsumes an air from the Keyboard Suite in D minor into an elaborate yet, owing to the pervasive use of the source material, introductory movement in which rhetorical dotted rhythms contrast with vigorous fugato writing. The emergence of the air in the guise of a postludal harp concerto is an attractive touch, with the notes G-F-H (G-F-B flat) providing a link from this movement to its successor.

Concerto with Double ’for orchestra’ is an even more extensive take on the ’concerti a due cori’ that feature some of Handel’s most intensive orchestral writing. Yet the two-orchestra opposition is less apparent than the trenchant contrasts in pace and texture, amounting almost to a set of variations on the initial air, whose ’double’ returns affectingly to round off the work, now in the rich aural context of a notably enlarged Handelian orchestra.

It is no criticism of Goehr to say that his music has rarely, if ever, courted popularity or easy acceptance. The polite if rather disinterested applause that greeted this premiere will suggest to some an absence of communication between composer and audience. So it is worth considering just what Goehr is effecting here: the reinvention, and from the inside, of the idiom of an ’old master’. The laconic, even detached mode of expression houses an affirmative sense of continuity between that past and our present. This, far more than easy gratification, is surely what makes durable composition; music that can be returned to over time – as the continuity is itself continued.

Leonard Slatkin gave a well prepared and often characterful reading of this substantial work which, with its robust instrumental interplay and intricacy of ensemble, must be the toughest of this year’s Proms commissions. Earlier, he had directed a fluid, intense account of Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, the BBC Symphony at one with the lightening changes of mood and motive that underlie this unnerving score. Sanford Sylvan was an animated narrator, less concerned to evoke time and place as to convey the terror of one who witnessed the last days of the Ghetto, which the chorus of ’Shema Yisroel’ counterbalanced with a sense of resistance to oppression of all times.

Some approximate choral singing, though not the exquisitely judged semi-chorus contribution, was the only real flaw in a vibrant and involving account of A Sea Symphony, with the BBCSO hitting possibly its best form this season. Although completed in 1910 when the composer was 38, the overriding feeling of a new talent on the threshold of a new century has rarely been more directly conveyed. Joan Rodgers sent out the opening movement’s clarion call to ships with vivid abandon, while Simon Keenlyside mused thoughtfully in ’On the Beach at Night Alone’. Both soloists were raptly expressive in the finale, where the urge to new discovery is evoked with mingled wonder and a touching vulnerability. Even at the outset of his maturity, Vaughan Williams has his sights set on what lies beyond human perception, and what can only be envisaged through imaginative realms.

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