Eugene Goosens's Phantasy Concerto and First Symphony are superbly played by pianist Howard Shelley with the late Richard Hickox leading the Melbourne Symphony on his last recording (hybrid SACD 5068). The concerto sounds like Cyril Scott's concertos - languid piano writing and atmospheric accompaniment - although Scott's music has more profile. The Symphony is a more striking work, beautifully orchestrated and skilled. Marvelous sound. -- Turok's Choice, Paul Turok, June 2009
Executive Summary: Mostly well-constructed, conservative late-romantic music, sympathetically performed. Perhaps best known as a conductor, Eugene Goossens (1893-1962) was also a fine composer. His music rarely soared to the heights of works of the likes Vaughan Williams and Britten, but it had character all of its own. The thematic material is a bit more angular than that of his contemporaries. One does not always come away with a firm sense of a regularity of phrase structure. Notable exceptions on this disc are the slow and scherzo movements of the Symphony. As with much of the music of this period, many stylistic tendencies were "in the air." One can hear the influence of Scott, especially his moving work, "Early One Morning," Bax, Delius and others.
The Phantasy Concerto of 1942 is given its first recording. To my ears it is something of a troubling work. Its constantly shifting tempi and undistinguished thematic material seem to leave it with a bit of a wandering quality. The progression of the compositional rhetoric seems confused, but then again, it is supposed to be a fantasy. The musical argument moves from one section to the next without much of a sense of a logical development of thematic material. A passage of tonal ambiguity is followed by a more conservative lyrical section. Chords seem to have, from time to time, added tones which do not seem to support the overall stylistic considerations.
Those tones almost seem like an affectation of a sort, producing some frustration on the part of this listener. One section in the third movement offers a passage accompanied by castanets. Perhaps the only rationale being that the work was written for the Spanish pianist, conductor, Jose Iturbi! That is not to say that music does not have many appealing, reflective moments. According to the program notes, the composer provided a "non-musical genesis" to the work. "The work, particularly the slow movement, was influenced by my rereading at that time of Edgar Allan Poe's The Devil in the Belfry, and might be said to reflect something of the fantastic and sinister character of that story, though in no way being a literal depiction of it." Perhaps Poe's writing made fine sense from a literary perspective: however, it appears to this listener that Goossens' musical manifestation of that idea left something to be desired.
More convincing is the Symphony #1 dating from 1938-40. While the Symphony predates the Concerto by only a year, the Symphony seems to find the composer more at ease with his materials. The work is cast in four movements. It has the sweep of other fine works like the Symphonies of Arthur Benjamin and Ernest Moeran. Some of the angularity in the thematic material is still present but one finds a more clearly defined phrase structure and compositional logic.
The high points of the work are the incredibly lovely slow movement and the delightful third movement, entitled "Divertimento." The slow movement is truly one of the great romantic expressions to be found in British music. The "Divertimento" contains some of the most attractive thematic material of the work. The finale seems a bit over-wrought.
As always, Howard Shelley brings great brilliance to the music. His playing is marked by an abundance of clarity and technical precision. He probably makes the best case possible for the Concerto. This is, to the best of my knowledge, the third recording of the Symphony. I will give Hickox's reading a place above the others, if for no other reason than his wonderful readings of the second and third movements of the Symphony.
According to the program booklet, this was Hickox's last recording. Listening to the slow movement of the Symphony, one is reminded of what a wonderful gift he gave all of us through his many recordings. While he may not have reached for the last ounce of expression, you can sense a great love and respect for the music in everything he did -- Classical Net, Karl Miller, April 2009
I must put my cards on the table. I believe that Eugene Goossens is one of the best of the large group of largely ignored British composers: there is virtually nothing in his catalogue that I have heard and not liked. Recordings and performances of his works are relatively few and far between. However, there have been sufficient releases on vinyl, cassette and CD over the years to be able to form an appreciation of his exciting corpus of music.
I first came to Goossens by way of the delightful collection of piano pieces called Kaleidoscope. It was played to me `live' by a friend who had counted the composer as a friend. It was a number of years before I discovered the First Symphony recorded by Vernon Handley and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Fortunately, ABC Classics issued a three-CD retrospective of Goossens' orchestral music in 2005 with Handley conducting. It is this release that allowed me, and I guess a huge number of other listeners to get to know this fine music. Two major works were missing - the Phantasy Concertos: one each for violin and for piano. Fortunately Chandos have here remedied the deficiency in the case of the 1942 Phantasy Piano Concerto.
The Phantasy Concerto for piano was written for the Spanish pianist José Iturbi. It was given its first performance in Cincinnati on 25 February 1944 and was later broadcast by the BBC in November of the same year. It received its first London public performance at the 1949 Promenade Concerts. I guess that it has remained unheard since that time.
It is not necessary to give an analysis of this work here as the sleeve-notes provide virtually all the information it is possible to write. However two things are worth quoting - firstly the composer's own description of the concerto: "The work, particularly the slow movement was influenced by my re-reading at that time Edgar Allan Poe's The Devil in the Belfry, and might be said to reflect something of the fantastic and sinister character of that story, though in no way being a literal description of it." It is, perhaps, pertinent to this description that the Second World War was in its final year when this work was first heard. Although this Phantasy is in no way a `war concerto', the `sinister' mood certainly pervades much, but certainly not all, of this Concerto. There are a number of positive passages that maybe look beyond VJ day to a time when hope is the prevailing emotion.
Secondly I want to quote The Times review of the first London performance. After noting that it could only be at a Proms Concert that it is possible to hear a full concert of Sibelius's music followed by two sizeable modern works: in this case Goossens's Phantasy and his Sinfonietta, the reviewer writes that this music "may be seen as a child of his time, of yesterday perhaps rather than today, but still in touch with contemporary idiom and contemporary taste." He continues, by suggesting that the concerto is "like Sunday's child, blithe and bonny and gay even if [it is] not good all the time". But perhaps his final comment is the most pertinent and saves today's reviewer from searching for a succinct description of this work. He suggests that this work may be "classed as a volume of musical autobiography: there is a lustrous veneer of nineteen-twentyish gallicism that masks, but not for long, the essential anglicism of, say, Delius and Bax, a light coating of fun à la Gershwin and even a good soupçon of good honest Australian frankness."
Goossens' archetypes are usually stated to be Gustav Holst and Arthur Bliss, however I sometimes think that this is disingenuous. The reality is that his Phantasy `ain't like no-one.' However, it would be fair to say that there are contemporary American influences as well as a lush `film-like' romanticism that is never allowed to overwhelm the music. If I was to suggest an influence it would be actually be Cyril Scott.
Interestingly, Goossens was in his mid-forties before he deigned to compose a Symphony. He wrote that "Perhaps it was that in my 25-year career as a conductor I had encountered a surfeit of immature pomposities labelled symphonies from the pens of youthful composers with a message." Furthermore he felt little urge to "project my sparse ideas through the medium of a form which for successful manipulation calls for a cunning hand and artistic maturity." Even a superficial hearing of this work must surely impress the listener. It is clear that the composer has not fallen into the trap he had feared.
He has created a canvas that is both well-written and fundamentally moving. It is a great work. However contemporary reviewers, although impressed, were a little disappointed that Goossens had not pushed at the boundaries of modernism. It was perceived as lacking a sense of adventure and an individual voice. Goossens wrote to his parents that "They [reviewers] would have liked me to have written something ultra-modern and full of modern clichés which would have enabled them to write that I was writing music which didn't come naturally to me."
The most damning criticism was from The Times reviewer. He suggested that "the Symphony, like his previous music, is a matter of skill rather than imagination."
As a listener approaching this great work after a period of some 65 years it is relatively easy to put aside stylistic prejudice. We now no longer feel it necessary to condemn a work because it is not deemed to belong to a particular school or to follow an expected compositional process or stylistic milieu.
This Symphony is a stunning work. I have always - since I first heard it - regarded it as one of the great essays of twentieth century symphonic literature. It is debatable as to whether it is to be regarded as a `war' symphony as the composer seemingly eschewed any particular programme. However the variety in this work suggests the whole range of emotions - from hope to despair - which would have been the prevailing moods at the time of composition.
It is easy to suggest influences and allusions in this work - perhaps Bax can be invoked as lying behind some of the more moody passages. Rob Barnett has suggested that the "dank and willowy world" of Frank Bridge can be heard. And echoes of Vaughan Williams can be noted at various points in the score's development. Yet the dynamics of this work, the outworking of the formal design and the colourful orchestration are all Goossens' own endeavour. It is unfair to suggest that his Symphony is in any way a parody or a pastiche of any other work.
At times it is beautiful, occasionally humorous, often disturbing. But at all times this First Symphony holds our interest and impresses our musical understanding. The programme notes are amongst the best I have ever seen for a CD. This is to be expected from Lewis Foreman. However, we are fortunate in having a great deal of commentary and analysis from Eugene Goossens himself.
Foreman has given generous quotations from these sources and has provided what is effectively a model sleeve-note for this release. This is the last major recording to come from the baton of Richard Hickox - and is typically superb. Also, hats off to Howard Shelley for mastering the intricacies of the Phantasy Concerto: it certainly sounds a considerable challenge.
One is left wondering if this recording was part of a planned Chandos cycle of Goossens' music. It is a project that may now no longer come to fruition. However we must be thankful for the Vernon Handley recordings although I am not convinced that these are readily available. -- MusicWeb International, John France, March 2009
This is announced as the final entry in the discography of Richard Hickox, who died last November at age 60, having recorded 282 CDs for Chandos alone in addition to several for EMI and Decca. It is a fascinating valediction, if an unplanned one, focusing on a composer who remains unknown to most of us outside his own country, though he had a significant international career as a conductor.
Eugène Goossens (1893-1962), distinguished member of a famous musical family, protégé of Diaghilev and Beecham, is barely remembered now even as the master conductor he was. The booklet cover is a photograph of Cincinnati at night, viewed from the Kentucky side of the Ohio River: Goossens composed both of these works during his tenure as conductor of the Cincinnati SO (1931-1946) and dedicated the Symphony to the orchestra's musicians. After Cincinnati he went to Sydney, as conductor of the Sydney SO and director of that city's conservatory, then returned to London, where he made some stunning recordings for EMI, Everest and other labels.
Both of these Cincinnati works exude a certain sense of drama and urgency, backed by a sure-handed exploitation of the resources of the modern orchestra that comes from knowing its machinery inside and out. The Symphony, according to Goossens, is not "programmatic" but does deal with "the eternal verities: life, love and death." Except for two or three pieces on 78s in the 1920s, Goossens did not record his own music; surely he would admire these committed performances by Shelley and Hickox and appreciate Chandos's wide-open sound and Lewis Foreman's comprehensive documentation. A splendid memorial to both Goossens and Hickox -- Soundstage.com, Richard Freed, May 2009