When a score has lain untouched for 15 years, you might assume it’s a dud. If so, you’re being unfair to some extremely respectable music that has been overlooked by our premiere-obsessed age. That’s why the Royal Philharmonic Society and BBC Radio 3 dreamed up “Encore”, a series showcasing worthwhile but neglected works by living composers. It has been a useful exercise – if only to remind us of an age, not so long ago, when music didn’t have to be handed to consumers on a plate.
But it would be wrong to assume that all composers of the 1960s and 1970s lived in an ivory tower – least of all in the UK. By the standards of that era, Alexander Goehr’s Symphony in One Movement (1969, revised 1981) sounds quite conservative, which partly explains why it played so well in this performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Goehr takes a largish orchestra, gives it a kernel of an idea – a simple melody, introduced by solo viola – and marries them in a seamless 25-minute sequence of developmental transformations.
As with all Goehr’s output, intellectual rigour gets in the way of expressive variety, and I found myself wishing the Symphony would be less unwaveringly talmudic. It’s a bit like an incantation, dark, austere and astringent – hence its neglect. But its moody cantilenas and volcanic chorales, all achieved with a classical craftsman’s finish, give it greater pungency than Goehr’s later music. There are sufficient rewards for the patient listener, especially in a reading as well organised as this one under Zsolt Nagy.
The stature of Goehr’s Symphony was thrown into relief by the rest of the programme – a harmless post-Bernstein essay by Michael Zev Gordon (b.1963), a Mahlerian adagio by Rupert Bawden (b.1958) and a perfectly horrible piano concerto by Alwynne Pritchard (b.1968), which not even a soloist of Nicholas Hodges’s gifts could rescue. If “Encore” is still going in 15 years’ time, let me assure those responsible: this concerto-without-music really is a dud.
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