Classical music / Too late a flowering?

Berthold Goldschmidt Memorial Concert Wigmore Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
Works composed 70 years apart by a single person are rare: those that share a single aesthetic vision are even rarer. Such is the remarkable phenomenon of Berthold Goldschmidt, whose Piano Sonata of 1926 featured this week alongside the UK premiere of his Rondeau for violin of 1995, played by its dedicatee Chantal Juillet, in a Memorial Concert at the Wigmore Hall. The legendary career of Goldschmidt, who died last October aged 93, is by now familiar: early success in Germany, forced exile to Britain, 25 years of silence, followed by a late creative flowering and international acclaim. How far, though, such a late style may still be considered "contemporary" was one of the issues raised by Thursday's tribute.

The superb Mandelring Quartet framed the evening with the String Quartets Nos 2 and 4, the latter composed specially for them. Both works highlight characteristics of Goldschmidt's style: a love of intricate counterpoint; a use of terse motifs and gestures often used in astringent, propulsive patterns; a beguiling exploration of chromaticism and acerbic dissonance, always guided by an underlying tonal direction. No 2, composed in London in 1936 and close in idiom to Shostakovich, has an attractive delicacy, the skipping motifs contrasted by wisps of lyrical melody and piquant accompaniment. The expressive heart is the Folia slow movement, a moving elegy ready to burst at the seams of its medium. There is a similar bittersweet angst to the Largo of the Piano Sonata of 1926, a work, progressive for its time, framed by two Bartokian fast movements, here brilliantly played by Kolja Lessing. A Schoenbergian elusiveness pervades "Hebelweben" (fogweaving), the first of two Morgenstern Songs of 1933, warmly projected by mezzo- soprano Helen Lawrence, with David Owen Norris at the piano, while a starker, drier idiom emerged in "Time", a stirring aria from Beatrice Cenci, Goldschmidt's prize-winning 1951 Festival of Britain opera, which had to wait 40 years to be seen and recorded.

The first work of the late period was the Clarinet Quartet of 1983, here beautifully rendered by the Mandelring Quartet joined by Gervase de Peyer, for whom it was composed and whose supple tone enhanced the intermingling textures. Still evident is the love of variation technique, as in the meditative Passacaglia movement and again in the Rondeau "rue du Rocher", conceived to mark a chance revisit to Paris after 64 years. The Canadian violinist Chantal Juillet and David Owen Norris conveyed its changing moods, dynamic fugatos and two cadenzas with sonorous intensity. As in the Fourth String Quartet, mastery of expression and effect were striking, particularly the chordal interruptions in the quartet's finale, an ambivalence of consonance and dissonance never fully resolved.

Yet are these works contemporary? Curiously, if these pieces have by- passed the advances of late Modernism, they do seem more attuned to the dilemmas of Postmodernism - the revitalisation of tonality on the one hand and, on the other, the contrapuntal tendencies of complexity. If this partially explains the composer's appeal to new audiences, it is quite apart from one's sheer amazement at an artist's life uniquely, artfully, fulfilled.

Malcolm Miller