In the fertile shadow of Schoenberg

Somewhere in the world of contemporary music, in among all the solo bassoon CDs and Tom Waits arrangements, there is occasionally the odd ‘traditional’ recital featuring new orchestral pieces: symphonies, concertos, that sort of thing. This past Friday’s concert at London’s Barbican Hall was one such occasion, featuring symphonies by Myaskovsky and Schoenberg, framed around a world première by Alexander Goehr and a UK première by Niccolò Castiglioni.

Played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conducted by longtime Goehr associate Oliver Knussen, Goehr’s When Adam Fell is a further addition to his considerable catalogue of works which engage fascinatedly and constructively with mainstream musical heritage. The remarkable chromatic bass of Bach’s chorale prelude Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt served as a compositional basis. Goehr’s piece is committedly abstract and finely wrought, a delicate, pensive study on and around the Bach bass line, whose harsh sixths and sevenths echo gracefully through the orchestra. Goehr’s orchestration here is generally light, with a very Second-Viennese scrupulousness of timbre, and in the hands of Knussen and the BBCSO it filled the Barbican acoustic beautifully.

Alexander Goehr – Photograph by Maurice Foxall

Goehr’s intriguing, gnomic piece sat in a very yin/yang relationship with the previous work played in the first half, Nikolay Myaskovsky’s Symphony No. 10 in F minor (1927). Dark and explosive, this tenth of twenty-seven symphonies by Myaskovsky is in one tumultuous movement, which was expertly choreographed by Knussen. The enigmatic Myaskovsky deserves more exposure than he gets, and the Tenth Symphony, dating from the year before Stalin took power, is an excellent way in.

Equally deserving of a fresh airing was Castiglioni’s Concerto, which has never been recorded and had never previously been performed in the UK. Castiglioni was born in 1932, the same year as Goehr, but he died in 1996; Concerto dates from 1963. It packs a lot of weight for a work that lasts just six minutes: so much, in fact, that Knussen treated us to the whole thing twice, after an enthusiastic response the first time through. Aurally it occupied a space somwhere between Webernian aphorism, Schoenbergian dread, and knowing, tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. The long silences which punctuate the soft, high opening flourishes indicate the work of a composer with a keen sense of the dramatic as well. Knussen appears to be fond of conducting Castiglioni, and on this evidence one might hope for more conductors similarly inclined. This delicious miniature more than deserves a recording to its name.

Oliver Knussen – Photograph by Clive Barda

Brilliantly programmed, the concert positioned these three works – all by somewhat retiring, underknown composers – before a key work by that voracious self-publicist Arnold Schoenberg. The orchestral version of his 1906 First Chamber Symphony was a thrilling climax to the evening. Knussen’s crystal-clear account was dry in the sense of witty, and pointed towards the centrality of this work to twentieth-century symphonic thinking. Knussen’s interpretation also steered impressively clear of Schoenberg clichés: in his hands it was neither late-romantic nor enduringly contemporary; it was simply important, obviously excellent music which it pays to know.

We may not need reminding of the shadow Schoenberg cast over subsequent composers. But occasionally it does pay to be reminded that his proudly purist approach to orchestral composition has spawned more than a few worthwhile pieces from composers since – and that, especially through Goehr, it continues to do so now.

The concert can be heard online through the BBC Radio 3 website until Friday 20 January.

Paul Kilbey writes on music and culture for publications including Culture Wars, Huffington Post and Bachtrack. Follow him on Twitter @paulkilbey.