March 19, 2009


Sir Eugene Goossens: Phantasy Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; Symphony No. 1. Howard Shelley, piano; Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Bernstein: Mass. Randall Scarlata, baritone; Company of Music, Tölzer Knabenchor, Chorus Sine Nomine, Absolute Ensemble and Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich conducted by Kristjan Järvi. Chandos. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

     The final recording made by the late conductor Richard Hickox was supposed to be the start of one of the Chandos label's many series exploring less-known but highly worthy music – in this case, that of Sir Eugene Goossens, the celebrated composer-conductor whose career was infamously ruined when he fell afoul of the sexual mores of the mid-1950s. Goossens (1893-1962) was the son of a conductor-violinist and grandson of a conductor, all of the same name (although the earlier family members spelled their first name Eugène, with an accent). Sir Eugene was Sir Thomas Beecham’s assistant conductor, conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic, and conductor from 1931 to 1946 of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra – to which his Symphony No. 1 (1938-40) is dedicated. Although not as well known for his compositions as for his conducting, Goossens was a skilled craftsman with a fine feeling for orchestral scoring and color and a conductor’s attentiveness to performance details: the four-movement Phantasy Concerto, for example, has no fewer than 51 tempo indications. Goossens was not an especially inspired melodist, but he understood very well how to pull together a large-scale work such as Symphony No. 1 or a medium-scale one such as the concerto. The Phantasy Concerto, recorded here for the first time, is really more of a concertante, with the piano and orchestra in dialogue rather than competition and with few significant passages of virtuoso fireworks. It is an interesting rather than involving piece, played respectfully (if perhaps a bit coolly) by Howard Shelley, with Hickox and the Melbourne Symphony providing fluid backup. Symphony No. 1 is a larger and grander work and one that especially benefits from Chandos’ top-notch SACD sound. In the traditional four movements, the symphony projects a repeated air of menace suitable to the times in which it as written, although it is certainly not a “war symphony” like those of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Its most impressive movements are its scherzo, called Divertimento, which is dark and insistent; and its finale, which is conceived on a large scale and is very impressively orchestrated, and which pulls together multiple elements from the earlier movements. Hickox fully plumbs the depths of this music, and it is a real shame that he had no opportunity to delve further into Goossens’ output.

     Better treated by society than Goossens, Leonard Bernstein – whose bisexuality was never the major issue that Goossens’ involvement in what was once deemed pornographic became – was another composer-conductor, and in many ways more successful at both endeavors. Bernstein’s showmanship and his willingness to cross musical lines had a lot to do with building and maintaining his reputation – and shielding his personal life from condemnation. His use of multiple musical and theatrical forms to create something new and distinctive is nowhere more apparent than in his 1971 work, Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. Commissioned by Jackie Kennedy for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., Bernstein’s Mass uses the Roman Catholic Tridentine Mass – sung in traditional Latin – as the basis for an emotional exploration of faith, and the challenges to it, in the modern world. In 32 sections that stretch through nearly two hours, Bernstein’s Mass starts in harmony, passes into doubt and uncertainty, climaxes in abnegation and sacrilege, then slowly rebuilds itself into an affirmation of faith that allows the work to conclude with the traditional, “The Mass is ended; go in peace.” It is a remarkable emotional journey that gets its full due from the very strong forces directed by Kristjan Järvi in the new Chandos recording. Especially impressive is the vocal contrast between Randall Scarlata as the initially accepting, then doubting Celebrant, and the Company of Music as the Street Chorus that first starts the questioning of the tenets of the Mass. The momentum of this lengthy work is well sustained from start to finish, and the newly created pre-records – playbacks used during the performance, previously available only in a version made by Bernstein himself – are highly effective. Certainly Bernstein’s own recording of the Mass has unequaled authenticity and tremendous historical value, but its 1971 sound is not up to that of Chandos’ SACDs, and Järvi nicely highlights and balances some elements of the choral and orchestral forces in ways that even Bernstein himself did not. Clearly, despite Richard Hickox’s death, Chandos’ commitment to the recording of distinguished modern music is continuing and will continue, and will do so at the highest level of quality.

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