ALDEBURGH FESTIVAL Schlussgesang / Alexander Goehr premiere Snape Maltings Concert Hall

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While the nugget of thought behind a concert is sometimes hard to grasp, Saturday's at the Maltings, Snape, served up its message clearly labelled. With the premiere of Alexander Goehr's Schlussgesang, or "Endsong"- six pieces for violist Tabea Zimmermann and the BBC Symphony Orchestra - this eponymously titled evening offered a variety of pieces dealing with the subject of musical last things. And Goehr's score was itself built around a moving elegy, placed fifth in the quasi-concerto sequence but first to be written, for the French composer Olivier Messiaen.

Messiaen and Mahler, theist and agnostic respectively, stand for powerful opposites in our attitude to the hereafter. Though not a note of Mahler was played, his ghost was much in evidence. It was there in the yearning finale, "Lord Melbourne", of the evening's valedictory Britten, the Suite on English Folk Tunes: `A time there was...'. It haunted the invention of that luscious endsong, Berg's suite from Lulu, with soprano Valding Anderson. As for Busoni's diaphanous tribute to a dear-departed mother, his Berceuse elegiaque, that work was premiered in 1911 by the ailing Mahler himself, at his final public concert.

Yet in the context of Schlussgesang, the full effect was far from asserting easy Romantic cliches. For all its tribute to Messiaen, a poised lament by a former pupil, Goehr's suite offered more provisional views than those of his teacher about the everlasting. "No idea, just quiet sleep" was the epigraph for this in memoriam movement. It suggested not just the composer's own thoughts, but also those of Kafka; for these words, like the titles of all six movements, were drawn from the Kafka notebooks. True, Zimmermann's flawless playing richly conveyed the viola's soulful timbre. Yet it was Kafka's spirit, in so far as words and ideas can be felt to reside in instrumental music, that in its cool acceptance of the nox perpetua rejected both Messiaenic and Mahlerian longing for the infinite.

There was qualified anger in the third movement, "Beneath all smoke is fire". Yet in the viola joke of the fourth, "Sobbing trapeze artist", and the essence of the last, "We were driven from paradise, but it was not destroyed" - capping its edgy allegro with a last, unsettled chord - could be read the runes of a kind of consolation. And being by Goehr, the work gave uncommon value to dedicated listeners. Allusions to Bach and Brahms, a concern with the formal scope of proportion and number (shared also by Kafka), and felicities of scoring in the lively writing for horns were familiar points of departure.

How composers tackle the construction of suites was itself a topic of this concert. Britten placed drama in the gaps between the movements; Goehr's were linked by subtle variation, with argument yielding to pensive resolutions. Serious though far from autumnal, Schlussgesang shared with The Death of Moses, Goehr's 1992 oratorio, an unfashionable sense of purpose. It also typified the concert as a whole, a model of its kind, and conducted by the festival's artistic director, Oliver Knussen, with that ease of control which appears like an understatement, yet in fact is the reflection of perfect professional command.