MUSIC / On pain of death: Meredith Oakes on The Death of Moses at the Proms

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The Independent Culture
Alexander Goehr's new oratorio, The Death of Moses, is not a big choral blast in the Proms tradition. The orchestra, of just 13 players, consists of such instruments as synthesisers, saxophones and bass guitar. It is a combination used more for economy and clarity than for associations with pop or for noise potential.

The Death of Moses is a quiet piece, both urbane and simple. A frail instrumental web, coloured notably by harp, xylophone and ritualistic cymbals, supports two choirs and three soloists. The soloists and some choir members are peripatetic: at Sunday's Prom, the balconies and stairs behind the Royal Albert Hall stage were launchpads for the voices of God, sun, moon and others, while Moses wandered among the different performing groups asking each of them why he had to die.

The Hebrew folk poetry of the text, translated by John Hollander into plain and modern but literary English, tackles a theme that the composer perceives as being universal yet under-explored outside Jewish folklore. Moses, even though he is a prophet, cannot accept his own death and uses every trick in the book to resist God's will. He even advances his special status as a reason why he should be spared.

The appealing frankness and domesticity of the old poems fit easily with our post-Freudian perceptions. As usual, Goehr has found a text that permits intellectual honesty, sensitivity and wit. He exploits it with as much theatricality as he can find: not just in the antiphonal placing of the dialogues, but in the gently colourful, limpid scoring; in the scattering of consonant chords among more familiar bent-note atonal writing; and in the rhetorical flourishes and repetitions within the generally syllabic word-setting.

Theatrically, though, this is a muted experience. Although the rhythms are not complex, Goehr's fastidiousness about always sounding four-square means that the pulse is stretched or sidetracked in ways that are sometimes meaningful but are often reflex nerve-tweaks.

The piece, with its children's choir, its primitivism, its religiosity and its pentatonic reminiscences, inhabits Britten territory. It never lapses into the smug, mannered tone of the Church Parables but, equally, it lacks Britten's breathtaking strokes of orchestration, and his robust way of letting a good idea run its full course.

There were many lovely and affecting moments on Sunday: the most sustained being the long farewell between Moses, finally reconciled to death, and his departing soul (Sarah Leonard, stratospheric and seraphic on the balcony). Nigel Robson was a pleasingly direct, sweet-toned Moses. Countertenor Michael Chance, with his expertly harnessed energy and his clean sound, was a tremendous asset as the voice of God and of Moses' mother.

It was conductor John Eliot Gardiner's idea to combine Goehr's Moses with part of Handel's Israel in Egypt: a fruitful pairing not only because Moses is hero of both works, but also because Goehr and Handel both look back to Monteverdi's style of orchestrated storytelling. Gardiner's brilliant performance of the Handel traced every loving stroke of wordpainting: storms, flies, locusts, black night and the ultimate quiet pastures of the Jews' release were all evoked with tactile vividness. It was notable how much of this was achieved, not with bluster but with unusually soft dynamics. Strangely, both here and in the Goehr the hall did not seem at all too large for the sound; Gardiner's inspired precision made sure of that. The choir was just perfect.