Twentieth-century craftsmen

Review of BBC Symphony Orchestra / Knussen concert from Times Literary Supplement, 20 January

Alexander Goehr, who turns eighty this year, has written a new piece for orchestra. It is entitled When Adam Fell, after the Lutheran chorale in which the party line on original sin is rather grimly set down (“Through Adam’s fall human nature and character is completely corrupted, the same poison has been inherited by us . . .”). As is often the case with Goehr’s work, the listener would probably be wrong to look for too literal a connection between music and title, and the composer’s focus is not so much on the legend or even the chorale itself but on the meandering chromatic bass line through which Bach, in his Chorale Prelude on the melody (BWV 637), depicted the irreversible, un-retraceable fall of Adam from the state of grace.

This bass line is evidently a favourite with Goehr, who was alerted to its intriguing contours by Messiaen, with whom he studied; he adapted it in another work indirectly inspired by the Book of Genesis, his dramatic cantata The Deluge. In the new work, the bass line is set more consistently, yet used in different ways throughout the piece, which stretches over an unhurried single movement. Beginning high up in the woodwind, with the silences between angular splashes of melody punctuated by a shrinking violin gesture suggestive of a kind of short aftershock, the material is deployed with characteristic delicacy, and beautifully scored to highlight thematic opposition between the traditional, strings-centred forces and the rather exotic soundworld of the harp and percussion – which includes bowed antique cymbals, tambourines, triangles, a Latin American guiro and an adapted drum called, for reasons obvious only when you hear it, a “Lion’s roar”.

The piece is characterized by alternations between these two contrasting spheres, the whole arranged and painted with exquisite colouring and detached neatness – the orchestral equivalent, perhaps, of the work of nineteenth-century Japanese landscape painters. There is also an oriental flavour in its rather meandering form, in which everything sounds perfectly placed but without any real sense of drive or urgency. There are moments of climax but these, too, have the flavour of neat, controlled explosions, and there is no discernible denouement but rather a kind of fading-out mid-gesture – perhaps as an optimistic take on the subject matter. Adam’s fall, after all, can be viewed as more of a beginning than an ending. The development of Goehr’s predilection for what one might call orderly inconsequentialism is rather charmingly traced in the postlude contributed by the composer to a new illustrated study of his work, Alexander Goehr: “Fings ain’t wot they used t’be”, edited by Werner Grünzweig (160pp. Berlin: Akademie der Künste. 978 3 93600 028 3. ¤24). The main part of the book is taken up with an extended essay by Paul Griffiths written in the form, rather appropriately, of a baroque suite, in sections entitled “Prelude”, “Chaconne”, etc. Griffiths shifts effortlessly from detailed musical analysis to elegant and concise characterization of the man and his work.

An important theme in the book is Goehr’s compositional relationship with Schoenberg; in addition to his laudably unevangelical and natural use of the Austrian composer’s teaching and methods, this comes through Goehr’s father, the conductor and composer Walter Goehr, who was one of Schoenberg’s students. The Schoenberg connection was also prominent in the BBC Symphony Orchestra concert at which When Adam Fell was premiered last week, in the form of the exuberant orchestral arrangement of the second Chamber Symphony. Both works were well handled by Oliver Knussen, whose conducting relationship with the orchestra is currently one of its greatest assets. Knussen spends more time putting his programmes together than most – perhaps because his conducting activities are limited – and his concerts are seldom other than revelatory. Thus the relationship between Goehr and Schoenberg was amplified “sideways”in the programme by the inclusion of two further twentieth-century single-movement orchestral works, neither of which I had heard before. The first, the Symphony No 10 by Nikolai Myaskovsky, dating from 1927, turned out to be a wonderfully exuberant piece of big-boned expressionism with an emphatic thematic argument – with striking if perhaps unintended or unwitting thematic similarities to the Schoenberg piece – and an energetic, almost orgiastic rushing form reminiscent of Scriabin.

The other piece was Niccolò Castiglioni’s fast, short Concerto for Orchestra which, despite having being composed in 1963, was receiving its UK premiere (Castiglioni died in 1996). Knussen has been championing the Italian composer’s music lately, and we can be grateful to him for doing so. A reworking of an earlier chamber piece, Tropi of 1959, the concerto starts with crisply scored Webern-like gestures, but very soon whirls them together into a chaotic frenzy, brimming with delightful energy and wit. Though entirely at odds with Goehr’s new work in its crazed dynamism, it shares with it the same palpable and – for the listener – thrilling sense of a craftsman fully in control of his materials while taking a quiet – and in Goehr’s case somewhat detached – delight in exploiting them.

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