Goossens Orchestral Works Volume 2
Andrew Davis / Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
9/10

It would be hard to overstate the charms of this CD of music by Sir Eugene Goossens. Excepting those with a strong aversion to early twentieth century French music, and its opulent yet elegant orchestration, this collection of large and small pieces is sure to have an almost universal appeal. In fact, the opening set of orchestrated piano micropieces, Kaleidoscope, is almost too cute in its appeal, but once past this Suite for Children, and its companion, the tiny Tam O’Shanter, we enter another world with Goossens’ Three Greek Dances. These have the same longing pastoralism as Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, nor do they suffer from the comparison; the music is condensed, exotic, and virtuosically orchestrated.

Also included on the disc are other miniscule Goossens bonbons, a set of Four Conceits, Two Nature Poems, an Intermezzo from his opera Don Juan de Manara, and a composite set of Variations on the French air Cadet Rousselle, with contributions from Bax, Bridge and Ireland. These utterly delightful works serve to underline Goossens’ skills both as a miniaturist and an orchestrator—in fact, his instrumentations serve to inflate the impact of these tiny works, by telescoping their gestural world so that they seem to escape their temporal confinement.

Delectable though these petit fours are, the stand-out work is the odd but engaging Concert Piece written for Goossens’ siblings. It is surely the only work of its kind—who else would have written a work for oboe, two harps, and orchestra? A concerto it certainly is not, but its unified character makes it rather more than just portmanteau. The first movement opens with an assertively modernist fanfare, but immediately settles into a more fantastic vein, which juxtaposes the cor anglais’ unwinding of a pseudo-archaic and spiky melody against the harps’ sophisticated textural ground (complete with soundboard tapping). Predominant  in the second movement is a lyrical oboe/cor and harp duet that contrasts strongly with the eldritch first; it is strongly reminiscent of the French arcadianism of Ravel and Debussy, but the harmonic and instrumental writing is entirely Goossens’ own, as is the harp duet hear the end. It is in the third movement that one scratches one’s head—what exactly is he up to here? In rapid succession we are presented with the fragile sound of a harp with a sheet of paper inserted into its strings, and reminiscences of a string of familiar works, from the Offenbach Barcarolle andDvorak’s Humoresque, to a hint of a Mozart favourite, and even a dig at Petrouchka, combined with a motoric la-mi-do-re ostinato that recalls Holst’s Beni Mora. A stretch of stretto and suddenly the movement is over. Neither selfconsciously post-modern nor pastiche, unprecedented in his other output, this last movement strikes me as the swansong of a great orchestral conductor, slyly reminding us that he has paid his dues.

If there is a shortcoming of this music it is merely that Goossens’ compositional personality seems to be invested more in the orchestral colour, rather than its language, which, for all its beauty very often strikes as a prismatic reflection of someone else—the listener is frequently reminded of the deliberate, discreet, derivativeness of film music. The key to much of the material on this disc seems to be the oboe—his brother Leon’s instrument, and the indispensible ingredient of neo-pastoral soundworlds—which dominates so many of these scores.

What makes this CD so sumptuously, breathtakingly, desirable—beyond the music—is the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s superlative performances, and Sir Andrew Davis’ complete grasp of the multilayered complexity of this faux-innocuous music, coupled with the nigh-perfect recording. This is a hybrid SACD, and I’ve only heard the stereo mix; I imagine the multi-channel version would be truly electrifying.

Review reprinted with permission of Thomas’ Music.