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.
Here is a really lovely performance of Ein Heldenleben, perfectly recorded in Frankfurt’s Alte Oper. From the very first note—that rich ocean-liner steam whistle signifying a voyage through life—it’s satisfying—if, that it is—you like things a bit understated. You are sitting about row “K,” and the orchestra is laid out before you at a slight distance. Listeners familiar with the many videos of this orchestra on YouTube will not be disappointed at the fine balances and purring nature of the sound. This is a satiny, swift reading, gently beautiful, supple and romantic in an undemonstrative way. It reminds me of Reiner’s and Kempe’s versions, both of which bring the piece home similarly at around 45 minutes.
The oeuvre of the each of the greatest, most familiar composers can be imagined as a personal cosmos, a collection of works of great power and quality, spanning a wide range of style and expression. Mention of their names is almost enough to arouse expectations of music belonging on the A-List. Other significant but less ubiquitous composers can be known to concert audiences through small numbers of repeatedly performed works that possess an identifiable sound, style, and mood. Less familiar but important works by two such composers, Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Serge Prokofiev, received fine performances by the Boston Symphony in late March, along with an A-List favorite by Rimsky-Korsakoff. These works gave audiences a chance to savor some less familiar, even surprising sides of their composers’ artistic personalities, and to provoke curiosity about what other works by these composers might be lurking in the shadows of the B-List.
This year’s production of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin was only the second mounted by the Lyric Opera of Chicago in its history. The Ring, Tristan, and Parsifal have been seen multiple times on Wacker Drive since the 1950’s, but what is usually thought to be Wagner’s most accessible opera was not performed until 1980, a pedestrian premiere memorable only for Eva Marton in her prime as Elsa. The psychological complexities of the later works have generally commanded more attention in the post-war musical world, and the fairy-tale Lohengrin inevitably began to seem old-fashioned, a victim of jokes about Slezak and Melchior hauled upstream by swan boats. But Wagner achieved in Lohengrin a purity of lyric expression, both tender and ardent, not found in any of his other compositions, and always a pleasure to encounter again. Perhaps rightly, it was the Italianate Lohengrin of Plácido Domingo in 1984 that drew the serious attention of New York audiences back to the piece, and then Ben Heppner and Deborah Voigt in the controversial 1998 production conceived by Robert Wilson. That staging cut through accumulated theatrical tradition by adopting a highly stylized Kabuki-like form, both in the sets and the singers’ movements. (Ben Heppner has claimed that his vocal problems began with this production and the unnatural singing positions he was forced into.) What Lyric Opera audiences saw in February and March was, as is usual in Chicago, hardly so challenging.