DUKAS: Polyeucte Overture; MESSAIEN: L’Ascension; SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 – Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden/Reginald Goodall – Pristine Audio PASC 581, 75:43 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
Reginald Goodall (1901-1990) had a fine reputation in the opera house, having led the premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1945, winning the esteem of colleagues Erich Kleiber and Otto Klemperer. Yet his skills suffered neglect until 1968, when his Die Meistersinger for the Sadler’s Wells revived his status, especially as a powerful British exponent of Wagner. Pristine and Andre Rose restore to us a concert from 18 December 1961 for the BBC Third Programme that extends our perspective on a conductor whose long work at Covent Garden has had few preserved documents. This recording, in fact, derives from a private tape of a radio broadcast made by Goodall’s friend, Victor Godfrey.
Goodall opens with Dukas’ music for the 1643 Corneille tragedy Polyeucte (1891), the composer’s first public work. The play, set in Armenia, follows the course of powerful families, Roman and Armenian, caught up in religious issues that have the title character’s converting to Christianity and publicly renouncing the pagan gods. The serious piece opens in the fateful key of F minor, whose theme in the low strings proves symptomatic throughout the 12-minute composition. The impetuous Allegro non troppo proceeds in 3/8, with a fortissimo that ushers in a third theme. The English horn brings in a motif that leads to an Andante espressivo in A-flat. With a subsequent Allegro and Andante sostenuto, Dukas reveals his gift for polyphonic combinations of his ideas. The scoring proves lush, even “Wagnerian,” with fine colors from the orchestra’s harp, oboe, strings, and English horn. The piece ends with a mood of renunciation and serene contemplation.
Goodall proceeds to the four movements – or exalted moments – that comprise Olivier Messaien’s 1933 L’Ascension, written soon after the composer had assumed the post as organist at the Church of the Trinity in Paris. The music celebrates the Feast of the Ascension as it appears in the Book of John, combined with a verse from Psalm 47. Christ reunites with God, and so invokes passion, joy, and mystery. The piece, originally scored for organ and later orchestrated, often found a place in the programs of Leopold Stokowski. The first meditation, Majesty of Christ Asking for Glory from His Father, offers a solemn procession from homophonic wind and brass instruments. The presence of traditional triads gives way to added sonorities that create an eerie tension. The second movement, Serene Alleluias of a Soul’s Desiring Heaven, likewise opens in woodwinds, reminiscent as they progress of the bird calls of Messaien’s ornithological studies. The dramatic poise of the music has a whirring accompaniment, as of a soul’s taking flight. Movement three, Alleluia on a Trumpet, Alleluia on a Cymbal, reminds us the Gallic influence in Messaien, via Dukas – his teacher – and Debussy and Ravel.
The music possesses a strong sense of fanfare, a form both Dukas and Ravel explore. The crisp, Stravinsky-like figures rise to a splendid climax; they then slow down to proceed to E-flat, where Messaien indulges us in muscular fugato. This, due to the orchestral color, resonates as an antique dance, almost pagan in its fervor, close Stravinsky’s The Firebird. The last meditation, Prayer of Christ Ascending to His Father, serves as a poignant string serenade. The upper voices, muted, play a slow, other-worldly procession iridescent in its studied homophony. The graduated climb will reach of dominant seventh chord that remains unresolved – except in the faithful imagination of devout believers. Anguish and bliss have mysteriously combined in Goodall’s gripping account.
Goodall begins the Schumann Symphony No. 4 in D minor (1841; rev. 1853) with a studied tempo much in the manner of the Furtwaengler classic performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, and just as monumental. The opening motif proves emblematic for the entire work, especially given Schumann’s high regard for the Beethoven 5th and its “cyclic” gambits. The textures and balances Goodall strikes up maintain the sense of Romantic yearning that infiltrates this music. The transition to the coda flows with a pliant lyricism, underscored by a dominant bass line and tympani. Only a slight caesura, and we enter the lovely Romanze, quite etched from the opening bars of the symphony. The endearing violin solo comes courtesy of Charles Taylor. Its inversion will provide the heart of the Scherzo. The seamless though intensely dramatic transition to the Langsam – Lebhsaft finale obviously pays homage to the C Minor Beethoven Symphony. The music wishes to shed the dark mode of D minor and move to D Major. Goodall enjoys the thinner, aerial F Major moments – he lets his flutes linger – in the Scherzo that will soon yield to the darkly foreboding entrance of the last movement. For my taste, along with that phenomenal Furtwaengler version, Guido Cantelli achieves a potent miracle in his reading of this sequence. The dotted rhythm motif will enjoy a contrapuntal strategy that proves effective almost entirely due to its brevity. Goodall’s ensemble gives it color and striking energy, with a pungent top in the horns. Only briefly, does Goodall allow Schumann’s repetitions threaten to become maudlin, redundant. The coda breaks loose with an entirely new theme that has freshness and gusto, and dramatic finality.