A Crop of Recordings XXX: Sir Eugene Goossens, Albéric Magnard, and Mahler

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Sir Eugene Goossens in 1954. Photo Max Dupain.

Sir Eugene Goossens in 1954. Photo Max Dupain.

GOOSSENS Symphony No. 2. Phantasy Concerto● Andrew Davis, conductor; Tasmin Little (violin); Melbourne Symphony Orchestra ● CHANDOS CHSA5193 (Streaming audio: 68:21) https://youtu.be/NrOatwASPNY

No sooner was Eugene Goossens knighted by the Queen of England for service to Australian music, than he wound up benighted and foolish in the hands of the immigration police. Arrested at Sydney airport for pornography in his luggage, Goossens found his international reputation shattered and life soon to end from a major fall from grace. At the time of his arrest in 1956, he was known throughout the world as a conductor, orchestra builder and composer. In a long career, starting out as a protege of Sir Thomas Beecham, Goossens had put the Rochester Philharmonic on the map, taken the Cincinnati Symphony to new heights, and made his mark as the most important performing musician in Australia, stewarding the Sydney Symphony to international prominence after the Second World War.

But Sir Eugene had a secret, and it wouldn’t have amounted to much in the Australia of today—or even then—if he had exhibited the good sense to call a lawyer, say little and dodge reporters. Goossens, it turned out, had a penchant for erotica and the occult. Though married, he had gotten himself involved with Rosaleen Norton, a louche artistic personality known as the “Witch of King’s Cross,” who was given to naked pentagram seances which today would seem more laughable than lewd. Bell, book and candle were about to do him in.

Forced to resign from the Sydney Symphony and barely avoiding arrest, Goossens returned to London, bereft of wife and most of his career. For a short time he lived in a series of rented rooms and managed to fulfill some early stereo recording projects with the London Symphony—good performances still available. But Goossens essentially faded away in disgrace and died of a perforated stomach ulcer in 1958.

Today, very little is said about this scandal. One imagines a more sophisticated Australia regrets bringing down such an important figure. The current Chandos project (this is Volume 3) dedicated to Eugene Goosens’s music, represents a major move in his rehabilitation. Like many a conductor/composer, Goossens composed eclectically in the manner of his time. You can hear touches of Hindemith, early Lutosławski, Honegger, Bernstein and Walton in his style.

The two works on this CD were written during the war and represent a sort of expressionistic last gasp for tonality, before dodecaphonic music took over the academic scene and ultimately the concert hall. Both pieces are capable of melody, but the tunes tend to be wan and unromantic in expression. The Phantasy Concerto was written for Jascha Heifetz, who rejected it, probably for that reason. It features lots of fleet neoclassic moments, but no soaring melodies like those in the Walton Concerto, then recently composed. Tasmin Little, always good in music like this, makes for a brilliant advocate of its strengths. 

Sir Andrew Davis, the Melbourne Symphony, and the Chandos engineers recording in Blackwood Hall at Monash University, provide fine accompaniment for the concerto and a powerful, satisfying rendition of the Second Symphony. The symphony worrisomely features two slow movements in a row, the second containing a rather more dissonant account of “The Turtle Dove” than we know from Vaughan Williams. But like a number of works composed during the war, it ultimately reveals itself successfully through passages of stressful harmonic tension culminating in a powerful march. The piece “sounds well” in the end. I found myself listening to it several times. To ask for anything more from it—well—we’d need witchcraft!

Albéric Magnard

Albéric Magnard

MAGNARD Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2● Fabrice Bollon, conductor; Freiburg Philharmonic Orchestra ● NAXOS 8.574083 (Streaming audio: 68:52)  

Albéric Magnard was born into financial independence and a sense of idealism which would ultimately turn deadly. Magnard’s father was Paris editor of Le Figaro, and under his tutelage the composer grew up purist and perfectionist in all things. Painstakingly dedicated to a subtly evolving style, immensely self-critical and prone to discarding ineffective works, Magnard ultimately did himself in with intransigence, the mirror image defect of his virtues. Confronted in 1914 by invading German soldiers at a country house near Paris, he couldn’t resist shooting at them, losing his own life in the process and any remaining manuscripts in the house, which the Germans promptly proceeded to burn down.

We are fortunate under the circumstances that the four Magnard symphonies have survived. Magnard’s style greatly resembles that of his teacher, Vincent d’Indy, but is ultimately less influenced by Wagner and less impressionistic. It veers in the direction of a Bach-like sense of earnestness and, unlike the music of Franck, doesn’t hide sensuality behind a saccharine religious front. It is austere to begin with, reverent and finely turned in a slightly otherworldly manner.

Like many aspiring composers of the day, Magnard was tempted to try out his talents composing for the immense orchestras then coming into being, and his First Symphony (1890) makes use of larger forces than would be the case subsequently. Given an inherent reserve, though, Magnard does not whip up the huge Brucknerian or Straussian moments you might expect. You are scarcely aware of a large complement, in fact, since all four symphonies are essentially string-based, with a variety of instrumentation mostly used for color within the texture. A beautiful chorale in the second movement, for instance, is presented in organ tones evoked by scoring for three saxophones. There are, to be sure, only a couple of cymbal crashes and thwacks on the bass drum to distinguish this early work from Magnard’s later style. And if there’s any excess, it doesn’t come from a plethora of noisy climaxes, but from a profusion of interesting ideas.

The First Symphony, I would argue, is actually a better piece than the Second, unified as it is by a memorable thrusting theme in cyclical manner and by the above-mentioned unforgettable chorale, which returns resplendently in the finale. Magnard’s Second Symphony (1896) uses a smaller orchestra, is longer, delivers less color than it should, and is almost impossible to listen to without a wandering mind. It chugs out of the box in a quasi-Schumannesque manner, the way Rimsky-Korsakov’s First Symphony does—and never stops chugging. When it turns to notions of contrast, some of the juxtaposed ideas sound awkward or even downright peculiar. The work was so poorly received it actually caused a scandal. By the time Magnard finishes his Third Symphony, however, (also begun in 1896) he will finally hit his stride: balanced construction, memorable melody, another beautiful chorale, and ethereal scoring perfection. Knowing the Third, one is tempted to look upon the Second Symphony as the wallflower at the dance, nicely turned out but ultimately a little strange and not quite as attractive as you’d hope.

None of this reflects criticism of the performers. Fabrice Bollon demonstrates once again that he and the Freiburg Philharmonic have full intuitive measure of the Magnard style. There are now three first rate cycles of the symphonies available in flawless sound: Sanderling’s BIS traversal from Malmö, Bollon’s two Naxos CDs from Freiburg and Jean-Yves Ossonce’s BBC Scottish cycle on Hyperion. The latter two conductors sound the most comfortable with the music. Compared with Ossonce, Bollon is slightly more rhapsodic and freewheeling, achieving perhaps a more effective transparency in places, but I wouldn’t want to be without access to either. These days Magnard is in good hands.

Gustav Mahler at Toblach, 1908

Gustav Mahler at Toblach, 1908

MAHLER Symphony No. 6● Tomáš Netopil, conductor; Essen Philharmonic Orchestra ● OEHMS CLASSICS OC 1716 (Streaming audio: 84:53)  

This is a lovely Mahler Sixth, with charm and a sense of nostalgia. I choose “lovely” advisedly, because we’ve become accustomed to the notion of Mahler as nearly hysterical, anxious and neurotic, with penetrating clarinets, edgy trumpets and the frantic emotional state of someone being strangled. Pleasantness doesn’t usually come to mind with Mahler—not since the advocacy of Leonard Bernstein, anyway. But there is another way to approach the composer, and I grew up with it. I listened the other day to Sir Adrian Boult’s Mahler First with the London Philharmonic, originally released in 1958 on Everest and still sounding good. It was my first exposure to Mahler, and it struck me now in hindsight how normal the music seemed, a genuine continuation of the Schumann/Brahms German tradition.

Without making too much of the comparison, since Tomáš Netopil is a romantic conductor given to push-me-pull-you far more than the rather “Toscaninian” and dry Adrian Boult, I’d suggest we have here nonetheless a serene Mahler performance which reflects Brahmsian sonority and a fluid sense of beauty. It’s the gorgeous balances and dreamy woodwinds, moving loosely on the dance floor, which stand out here more than the normally martial timpani, with brass powerful but rounded and still within the texture, and supple deeply supportive strings. The scherzo manages remarkable lightness in places, evoking more happiness than portent. Even Mahler’s cowbells in the first and third movements tintinnabulate unusually delicately over soft meadows. There is plenty of power along the way, nonetheless, if not perhaps quite the usual sense of tragedy, and tempos are quite normal, not slow. Beautiful does not mean boring. The finale’s introduction alternates between a deliberate chorale tempo and unusually effective accelerated pounding. The Andante has an appealing ability to crest a hill and float slowly down. 

I enjoyed every moment of this performance, and the sound is beyond reproach, rich and involving. No notes are supplied for the Naxos stream, so I cannot indicate with certainty whether this was a live performance or not, my only real criticism.

Netopil is a Czech conductor, now in his early forties, who trained as a violinist and sounds like one. I reviewed his CD of Josef Suk’s Asrael in Fanfare 41:1 (Sept/Oct 2017) and noted similar heartfelt qualities in it. He’s been Music Director in Essen, a city the size of Detroit in the German western industrial heartland, since 2013. Mahler’s Sixth actually premiered in Essen in 1906, but most listeners will not be that familiar with the orchestra. Encountered here, it’s a fine ensemble capable of anything asked of it, including sweetness without irony. I look forward to more releases from this conductor.

Gustave Mahler in 1909

Gustave Mahler in 1909

MAHLER Symphony No. 8● Gabriel Feltz, conductor; Emily Newton, Michaela Kaune, Ashley Thouret (sopranos); Iris Vermillion, Mihoko Fujimura (altos); Brenden Patrick Gunnell (tenor); Markus Eiche (baritone); Karl-Heinz Lehner (bass); Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno; Slovak Philharmonic Choir Bratislava; Dortmund Choral Academy Boy Choir; Dortmund Philharmonic Orchestra ● DREYER GAIDO CD 21118 (2 CDs: 82:13) Live: Dortmund 7/3-4/2018

Gabriel Feltz, now Music Director in Dortmund and Belgrade, is already represented on Dreyer Gaido CD by the first seven Mahler symphonies with the Stuttgart Philharmonic, an orchestra he led for ten years and where he initiated the series. This powerful new live recording of Symphony of a Thousand with the Dortmund Philharmonic continues Feltz’s well-regarded Mahler cycle-in-the-making and furthers his collaboration with Dreyer Gaido. One assumes the Ninth Symphony, and more, will follow in Dortmund.

Mahler’s 8th Symphony, once thought exotic and unrecordable, is available now in many believable versions, studio and live. There is a conducting approach and sonic perspective to be found for every taste in the piece, and the armchair listener need only choose. Unchanged, though, is the debate about the symphony itself. Although audiences ultimately respond to the cumulative power of his music and the nobility of Goethe’s words, the way Mahler lays it all out poses structural problems for the interpreter—and sometimes puzzlement for listeners along the way. Half the time Mahler seems to be showing the world a “sampler” of his talents, one moment competing with Bach, the next with Puccini in hits from an opera he would have liked to write. Only missing from Mahler’s bag of dramatic tricks are dancing girls and a narrator. It doesn’t all work easily.

I’ve always been troubled by issues of forward motion in the symphony. It comes flying out of the box with commanding orchestral and choral sweep. All well and good, you think. This is immediately followed, too, by a gorgeous second melody, noble and yearning, which Mahler hands to his vocal soloists. But there’s the rub. For the next five minutes you then experience static ensemble singing, which can range from beautiful to florid, but which tends to leave the music sitting in place, no matter how convincingly sung. When you have several vocalists playing off of each other’s vibrato onstage, the warbling fuzzball of sonority may be fascinating, but since pitch is going every which way, it’s hard at such moments to advance the harmonic direction of the music. That’s why we worry so much about the vocal quartet at the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It represents a pause in the action.

Mahler’s first movement, as a structure, only catches fire when his choral forces get underway again. Similar issues plague the finale. The baritone bursts forth in Ewiger Wonnebrand with sweep and direction, but progress inevitably bogs down in several places subsequently, where Mahler turns things over to episodes with the several soloists. An ideal recording can transcend this problem, if listeners experience the singers as instruments which blend seamlessly with the chorus and orchestra. But that’s incredibly hard to manage in a live recording. This is why my go-to CD for the Mahler Eighth remains Leif Segerstam’s studio version on Chandos with the Danish Radio Symphony, now several decades old. It’s miked at the perfect distance, where sopranos sound almost like flutes and the baritone and bass like burnished cellos, and the general blend of sound produces a fine sense of beauty, mystery and otherworldly oceanic flow. Segerstam’s chosen soloists also also play down wide operatic “look at me” vibrato for a simpler delivery. The result is ethereal and all of a piece. More typically, as here, the work turns into a pageant, very much of this world.

Gabriel Feltz is a powerful, earnest conductor with a good orchestra and a good hall. He comments in program notes about the acoustic care with which he has chosen the size of his forces, numbering 301 here. (That’s well-judged. Not many concert halls can accommodate the full notion we have of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”). This release, indeed, is as well-recorded a live version of the symphony as you will find. You are definitely “there”. Among recent CDs it’s more substantive than Thierry Fischer’s transparently lightweight, brisk version with the Utah Symphony for Reference Recordings, which doesn’t add up to much emotionally. Feltz is the sort of conductor who builds a granitic sonority from the bottom up.  Rounded low brass sonorities and powerful bass drum rolls abound here, along with excellent velvet choral singing. In the first movement’s fugal culmination, just before it recapitulates, the chorus not only swoops over the listener, but Dortmund’s percussionists seem to grind out an earthquake for good measure. Feltz’s singers, otherwise good without challenging one’s favorites, strive operatically a little too much for my taste, and Feltz’s children’s choir sounds a bit rowdy, as if made up of street urchins ready to pick your pocket. But it is hard to argue with the performance. The ultimate effect here is of a down to earth, exciting experience in the concert hall. As the text says,  “All that is transient is mere parable”. Goethe would have understood.

About the author

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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