Classical Review: Now he is 65 Sixties plus

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Alexander Goehr 65th Birthday Concert

QEH, SBC, London

"History in the Making" was the title of Saturday's event; but the whole thing was really more like re-living history. The stalwarts of London's "new music" scene turned out in force - enough to half-fill the Queen Elizabeth Hall - to hear the London Sinfonietta under Oliver Knussen present a programme strongly redolent of the Sixties - of the Fifties even (no wacky experimentalism here). It all resembled some sort of rearguard action by traditional-minded modernists against the onset of the 21st century.

Over the proceedings hung the unmistakable presence of Arnold Schoenberg, whose Three Pieces for Chamber Orchestra of 1910 demonstrated the master's uncanny skill in conjuring up novel instrumental colours and evoking a certain hypnotic fascination out of unpromising tonal material. Which is more than can really be said of the Piece for Piano and 16 Instruments of Stefan Wolpe, receiving its UK premiere after 35 years. Peter Serkin dealt valiantly with an ungrateful solo part in music that had a certain manic intensity but otherwise fully lived up to its dry-as-dust programme note. The spectacle of an electric guitar playing serial music had a certain period charm, though.

Stravinsky always was such a fashion-conscious composer, so perhaps it's not such a surprise that he finally succumbed to serialism at the end of his creative career. His Movements of 1958-9, a sort of miniature piano concerto, again featured Peter Serkin, who performed his part with precision and commitment; an enlarged Sinfonietta made the most of the colouristic qualities of this otherwise dense and arid piece ("compact and complex", it said in the note). An uncalled-for repeat performance gave us all a chance to appreciate its finer qualities.

Goehr's brand-new Idees Fixes, an engaging "Sonata" for 13 instruments, contained much quirky, spiky music - light-hearted even, in places - interspersed with more lyrical, elegiac material, in a complicated structure of interpenetrating movements. All very tastefully done, but with perhaps just a whiff of comfortable academia about it. The Little Symphony of 1963 has always seemed like one of Goehr's most memorable works - after the Stravinsky, it was a relief to enter its world of human emotion and intensity of expression. Here the elegiac element was to the fore, in a piece dedicated to the memory of the composer's father, but this did not exclude a certain rumbustiousness and bite in both Variations and Scherzo: unmistakably a young man's music. A haunting reprise of the chorale material heralded the quiet string ending of this moving piece. Both composer and work were received with warm applause.

Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 10pm on Boxing Day