The Nash Ensemble’s fine celebration of  Alexander Goehr at (nearly) 90

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Goehr, Richards, and Anderson – Alexander Goehr 90th Birthday Concert: Héloïse Werner, Emilia Bertolini (sopranos), Clare Presland (mezzo-soprano), Joshua Ellicott (tenor), Nash Ensemble / Alasdair Beatson (piano/director). Wigmore Hall, London, 22.3.2022. (MB)

Alexander Goehr 90th Birthday Concert at Wigmore Hall

Goehr-Stravinsky – ….around Stravinsky, Op.72, for violin, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, and bassoon
Emma-Ruth Richards – de Stâmparare, for solo oboe
Goehr – Largo siciliano, Op.91, for piano, horn, and violin; The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, Op.102, for voice, clarinet, and piano (world premiere); Combat of Joseph della Reina and the Devil, for two sopranos, mezzo-soprano, tenor, piano, and viola (world premiere)
Julian Anderson – Ring Dance, for two violins

Alexander Goehr will be 90 in August; here the Nash Ensemble, longstanding champions of his music, got in a little early with a celebratory concert including no fewer than two Goehr premieres and three other works of his. Compared to his two ‘Manchester School’ colleagues, Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies — John Ogdon and Elgar Howarth being very different cases — Goehr has latterly, perhaps always, had a raw deal in terms of public and institutional approbation. It is never too late to start setting things right, though; and if it is long past time for our opera houses and orchestras to rise once again to the challenge, this Nash Inventions concert will surely have confirmed the faithful in their habit and made a number of new converts.

The Nash Ensemble premiered ….around Stravinsky twenty years ago in 2002. It is difficult to imagine a more sparkling, witty, and involving performance than that given here. With Stravinsky’s Pastorale at its heart, Goehr ‘remembers and refers to the piece “around” which it is performed’. And so, first we heard rich-toned solo violin (Benjamin Nabarro), in the movement ‘Dushkin’, which had at least a little, I fancied, of Stravinsky’s singular way with the instrument, albeit more rooted in German tradition (Schoenberg and Bach). Stravinsky himself, as automated music box, roaring towards (first version) and out of (second, as heard here) the Twenties, yielded to solo violin once more, this time an ‘Introduzione’, as eloquent as its predecessor, in character both related and different. Its proportions, not simply temporal, but also vertical and horizontal, sounded just right to me, beautifully handled both as work and performance. For a concluding Rondo, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, and bassoon returned. One might initially have thought this Stravinsky, or at least Stravinsky-adjacent, but distance increased as it went on its merry way: not only a neat but an expressive and enjoyable conceit.

Emma-Ruth Richards’s de Stâmparare received a fine performance from oboist Gareth Hulse. Based on a Romanian folk song, Hora Spoitorilor, it sang, cried, and in the tradition of the doina, seemed to invoke help or solace from beyond. Microtones woven around its (broadly) tonal core, it remained both direct and ambiguous, phrasing lightly deconstructive or developmental.

Written in 2012, Goehr’s Largo siciliano stands precisely midway, temporally, between ….around Stravinsky and today. It refers, strikingly and surprisingly, to Messiaen’s Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, with what I think of ultimately as a respectful lack of respect. Throughout its sequence of variations for piano, horn, and violin, fascinating shadows and echoes of very different music emerge: melodic lines, rhythms, and harmonies all transformed. There is some splendidly gestural music, not entirely foreign to Messiaen, but darker, Brahmsian tendencies and related variegation are more typical. Indeed, the greater connection that struck me to Messiaen was less harmonic, than pertaining to a way of listening to harmony. (Or perhaps that was just me. At any rate, the analysis lectures I heard Goehr give at Cambridge, in which he argued the importance of mixture chords, as opposed to endless ‘growth’ of harmony in the guise of ‘new’ chords, seemed much to the point.) With counterpoint and harmony in fine balance, developing variation propelled us along a path whose transformational treatment of variations put me in mind of Liszt or the Beethoven of the Diabelli Variations. These were but reference points, though; I do not think there was anything so straightforward as ‘influence’. This may not have been serial music, which had long since become too predictable for the composer, but there seemed to me an idea, maybe even an Idea, at work not entirely dissimilar. Through the voices of three highly independent instruments, a whole world of potentialities opened up — and closed.

Goehr’s The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba visits the Queen’s own visit to St Anthony in a Flaubert parody from Ulysses. Immediately, its combination of fantasy and the sardonic captivates, indeed even from its purely instrumental introduction. Full of incident and with a keen sense of musical narrative, it is overflowing with Schoenbergian lyricism that satisfies as much as it beguiles. A typically animated and detailed performance from Héloïse Werner, stepping in at very short notice for an indisposed Claire Booth, extended our understanding not only of Goehr but of Molly Bloom, leading us to the calculated disruption of the wake-up call: ‘You are a poor old stick in the mud. Go and see life. See the wide world.’

Julian Anderson’s early Ring Dance (1987) for two violins followed. Its grating — in a positive sense — Hardanger fiddling truly dug into the instruments of Nabarro and Michael Gurevich; or rather, they did, in its service. Work and performance served up an arc clearly felt, experienced, as well as observed, its notes worked for and achieved. Whilst it could hardly be considered spectral music, perhaps some of its processes fulfilled a similar function, not unlike Goehr’s transformations for serialism. It is, at any rate, a work newly released by the composer for public performance, and which he considers ‘to some extent … a prototype for everything I’ve composed since’.

The second of two premieres was of Goehr’s setting, somewhat in the manner of Janáček’s Diary of One who Disappeared, of a Kabbalistic ‘Jewish Faust’ story, presented some time ago to the composer by Gerschom Scholem and latterly translated by Goehr from German intro English. The ‘combat’ — a nod to Goehr’s beloved Monteverdi, in the guise of Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda — of a rabbi with the Devil, the rabbi and his disciples setting out to climb the mountain where the Devil and his consort Lilith live, summoning Elijah, angels, and archangels along the way to help, only to be told that help his impossible, and having succeeded, failing through trickery and temptation at the last is told with dry wit yet expressive generosity (so long as one actually listens). A sweet-toned Joshua Ellicott, as the Teacher, was echoed and elaborated at the first by solo viola (Lars Anders Tomter), and latterly the full ensemble in varied, differentiated fashion, modes of not un-Brechtian Verfremdung lightly worn yet richly and amusingly expressive. The Schoenberg of Moses und Aron and smaller choral works stands in the background of the writing for the three disciples when heard together, yet each (Werner, Emilia Bertolini, and Clare Presland) was given plenty of scope for individual, shiftingly cast portrayal.

These passages of narration, in which roles merged and separated, fascinated as much as the dialectical, rabbinical wisdom at the musical as well as philosophical heart of the work; indeed, the former seemed to emerge from the latter. Each of ten episodes had its own integrity, yet contributed to ascent as a whole. Viola harmonics, as the Angel Sandalphon vanished, echoing collaboration between the two high angels Metatron (loud) and Katrie (pianissimo), and a sense of time occasionally suspended, yet often pressing on furiously contributed to a work of well-judged proportions, leading ironically in the light of where the evening had begun in violin terms, with victory for the Devil, depravity for the rabbi, and intriguing survival for one of the disciple-narrators. ‘Only I remain to tell the tale.’ Make of that what you will — and that seemed to be the invitation.

Now, please, for a revival of Goehr’s Brechtian masterpiece, Arden Must Die. English National Opera, are you listening? In time for the fiftieth anniversary of its 1974 British premiere at Sadler’s Wells?

Mark Berry

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