A concert in celebration of a composer’s 75th birthday would usually be taken as a good time for looking back. Not so here: all the pieces by Alexander Goehr that were played on Sunday dated from the last few years and the evening was more like an opportunity to catch up with a busy composer’s latest outpourings.
Having started out alongside Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies as one of the go-ahead “New Music Manchester Group” in the 1950s, Goehr subsequently diverted to prestigious educational posts at Yale and Cambridge. But the music has never stopped coming.
Like many such events, this birthday evening had its drawbacks: a spoken tribute to the composer was so dry and monotonously delivered that it was surprising the audience was not asleep before the music began.
Goehr’s music fared better when it stood on its own feet. His choice of supporting items – Stravinsky’s gritty Concertino and Schumann’s playfully cerebral Six Canonic Etudes – told us much about his own style, which is always intellectually certain of what it is doing, and generally means not letting his emotions get in the way.
Dark Days, an austere new song cycle, uses texts by Hesiod and Homer to put man’s suffering in war in the context of a history ages old. The musical ideas are alive and clear-headed, but Goehr refuses to let anger or sympathy shine through. The final “Fable”, a wry tale of a hawk and a nightingale, places the earlier songs in inverted commas, as Stravinsky might have done. Baritone Roderick Williams and pianist Andrew West were admirably articulate in it.
The Piano Quintet, dating from 2000, is equally adept, passing ideas back and forth between the players with a skill that delights in its own facility, but the long finale goes an important step further. Here, at last, Goehr let the music glow with inspiration and a winning performance by pianist Daniel Becker and the Elias String Quartet sent the audience home with a touch more of the celebratory spirit.
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