Eugene Goossens: The Apocalypse

Recorded in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House at a live performance presented by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on 13 November, 1982.

Eugene Goossens most ambitious and epic work, The Apocalypse, has had few performances since its premiere in Sydney Town Hall in 1954. This recording was made to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, in 1982. It is a grand work, full of colours and drama, and in the words of conductor Myer Fredman, “the orchestration is brilliant”.

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The Apocalypse occupied Goossens between 1949 and 1954, according to the track listing, and 1943-54 according to Rob Barnett’s thorough and revealing booklet essay. Either way it was a substantial undertaking and led to very few performances; the Sydney premiere on 22 November 1954 was followed by a repeat the day after and there were two performances in London the following year. A long gap followed until Myer Fredman’s performance which was released on LP and is the basis for this CD issue.

It’s a work that shivers with tension, a tension established from the very start and that seldom really lets up. The text’s rigorous bleakness and blackness, drawn from The Revelation of St John the Divine and selected by the Rev. Frank Moore in conjunction with the composer, offers plenty of opportunities for baleful cataclysm but far fewer for compensatory elements. It’s perhaps for this reasons that sepulchre and the Bottomless Pit resound more fully in the musical memory than the mystic New Heaven; if this suggests an unbalanced work, then so be it. Yet Goossens’s vision is itself gripping and rewards focused listening.

The overwhelming Vision of the Glory of God and Book of Destiny with overlapping choral entries, like giant waves of sound, prepare the listener for the screwed-up tension to come, though it’s noticeable that in the Opening of the Seals, Goossens reverts, orchestrally speaking, to a modified impressionism in his wind writing. The first part of the oratorio ends in a triumphant blaze of sound, conveyed by the uneven choral forces and the well-drilled Sydney Symphony. Relief of a sort comes in the interlude between the acts though the martial brass calls, orchestral vehemence and exotic dance of The Worship of the Beast – a kind of Aleister Crowley in music – ratchets tension once more. The work’s most beautiful moments come in the rarefied cantilena of The Song of the Elect whereas the choral melismas in The Song of the Victors adds another gloss to Goossens’s choral means in this work. It is right, albeit predictable, that the baleful The Binding of Satan should be followed by the Elysian lightness of A New Heaven, the whole concluding with a modern day Handelian Alleluia. Enthusiastic applause is retained.

When it came to the performance, the Sydney Philharmonia Choir was augmented by other local choirs and the arrangement clearly generated tensions in rehearsal and problems in performance. For so vast a work, the massive chorus sounds under pressure in some of the more demanding music – and much of the music is demanding. Similarly the singers have to cope with some formidable technical demands. Bass Grant Dickson, as John the Evangelist, filled in at short notice and he is a capable singer without a conspicuously fine voice and whilst he is tested technically and does succumb occasionally he possesses stamina and tenacity. Ronald Dowd, in a small role as An Elder, was almost at the end of his distinguished career and it does rather sound it. His fellow tenor Raymond McDonald is inevitably in younger and fresher voice in the dual roles of An Angel and A Voice from Heaven. Mezzo Narelle Tapping and contralto Lauris Elms prove a more consistent team than the more uneven men. The recording quality sometimes registers the difficulties of in situ taping of the Mahlerian-sized forces but the visceral nature of the writing certainly registers with blistering intensity.

The full booklet contains the complete text as well as Rob Barnett’s notes. I doubt there will be an opportunity to hear the work again in the foreseeable future so Lyrita offers your only viable chance to hear it. Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb-International

It was surely inevitable that the years surrounding the Second World War should have invited composers to turn for inspiration to the Apocalypse, the vision of final judgement and catastrophe that brings the New Testament to a conclusion and has so appealed to the more ghoulish of prophets and seers over the ages. Rob Barnett, in an informative booklet note, cites in particular works by Franz Schmidt, Jean Françaix, Henk Badings, Hilden Rosenberg and Gian-Carlo Menotti dating from the years 1937 to 1953; but of these only Schmidt’s Book of the Seven Seals has maintained any sort of place in the repertory. Goossens’s The Apocalypse, after an initial Australian première in the year of its completion and two BBC broadcasts on consecutive days the following year (all conducted by the composer), has only ever been performed once since – the Australian Radio production which is the basis for this recording. The fate of the large-scale oratorio was sealed by the 1956 scandal which drove Goossens into exile from his position as one of the leading figures of the Australian musical scene (a debacle which may partly have been the result of press collusion with police seeking to expose an occult circle active in Sydney at the time). But the neglect can also be attributed to other causes.

In the first place the text itself is most curiously balanced. When Vaughan Williams came to set passages from the Book of Revelation in his 1926 mini-oratorio Sancta Civitas, he played down the more vicious elements in the original text and devoted more substantial passages to a lament over the fall of Babylon (St John’s symbolic representation of the Roman Empire) and a beatific vision of the New Jerusalem complete with the VW trademark of an ecstatic violin solo. For that work it seems that VW selected his own text, but here Goossens in collaboration with the Reverend Frank Moore has chosen a series of passages which emphasise the sense of cruelty and vengeance in the original Biblical passages, actually removing some of the more beatific images which VW included in his much shorter summation. It is hard to see what musical imperative could have attracted the composer to such texts as “to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented for five months” (itself a peculiarly limited period, given that later it is specified that the Devil should be “tormented day and night for ever and ever”). Indeed, Goossens seems in places to have ploughed his way through the words in a curiously mechanical manner, rattling his way roughshod over the meaning of the text in a gabbled sort of recitative both in passages for the solo singers and the chorus. And this sense of disengagement is also damaging in some of the lyrical passages that remain: compare his setting of “And they shall see his face, and his name shall be in their foreheads,” here given to a strenuously declaiming tenor as opposed to VW’s delicately bruising choral discords resolving into unison. Rob Barnett revealingly quotes a letter from Vaughan Williams to Goossens in which the older composer delicately hints at his disappointment with the latter’s treatment of the words during this section.

But what remains, and The Apocalypse is a very substantial score indeed, is also very exciting. Goossens may have been regarded in his own day as an old-fashioned composer, but his command of the orchestra is always blistering and colourful and his harmonic palette is remarkably forward-looking, right from the opening woodwind gesture with its Carl-Orff-like sense of chiselled precision. The score sounds fiendishly difficult to play, and in an interview with Rob Barnett quoted in the booklet Myer Fredman disarmingly cites the problems that arose during rehearsals for the performance. In the first place the score demands a massive chorus, and it was necessary to augment the two hundred singers of the Sydney Philharmonia with a raft of volunteer amateurs from the Sydney area, a procedure to which the more ‘capable’ singers objected. It was also necessary to replace the originally engaged high baritone (who has the lion’s share of the solo singing to do) with a deep bass who had a matter only of weeks to rehearse the role intensively before the scheduled performance. Under the circumstances I find it hard to understand why the conductor insisted that ABC should abandon their original intention to record the piece under studio conditions following the performance, and instead to simply issue on the projected LP set a straight transcription of the live broadcast. It is true that the orchestral playing here sounds pretty faultless, but matters of balance between chorus and orchestra could surely have been improved in the studio as well as occasional problems in the vocal parts (of which more anon). At the time of the original issue Lewis Foreman noted also in his review of the LPs that there were minor abridgements in the performance, which could surely have been filled in at the same time. The text provided in the booklet contains a couple of passages which are not evident in the sung performance here, and the section entitled The Fall of Babylon [track 10] is stated in its heading to include a passage for “high soprano” conspicuous here by her absence both from the recording and the listing of soloists and therefore presumably omitted. The latter is particularly unfortunate (if this is indeed an abridgement), since the movement in question could undoubtedly have benefited from some lyrical expansion. Also, although the orchestral playing is invariably exciting, one might have wished that Myer Fredman could have relaxed the pressure during some of the passages where the chorus seem to tumble over themselves in a desperate attempt to keep up.

The substitution of the deep voice of Grant Dickson for the original high baritone in the pivotal role of St John is by no means the disaster that might have been anticipated; indeed, there are some passages earlier in the work where Goossens seems to have envisioned a lower tessitura for the part altogether. But later on, Dickson is clearly pressurised by some of the extremely high notes he is required to produce – they are solid and firm, but the sound is not devoid of evidence of strain. It was presumably impossible given the limited rehearsal time to have substituted him in the role by the naturally higher baritone of Gregory Yurisich, here restricted to the amplified ‘voice of God’ in the opening prelude [track 1]. Robert Dowd as ‘an elder’ makes a similar brief appearance [track 5] but the singer’s voice (he was on the verge of retirement) is only a shadow of its former heroic self, and his closing phrase sits uncomfortably on the flat side of the correct pitch. The other tenor, Raymond McDonald, sounds decidedly off-mike on his first appearance, but is more forthright in his description of the New Jerusalem even when he lacks the ideal sense of warmth. Lauris Elms, Mrs Sedley in Britten’s Decca recording of Peter Grimes, actually sounds like the spiteful village gossip in a phrase like “the wine of her fornication.” As I have noted, the balance between voices and orchestra fluctuates between one section and another, presumably the result of rapid on-the-spur-of-the-moment decisions by the broadcasting engineers, although they certainly contrive to contain the massive climaxes without any hint of distortion; I find it hard to imagine how the Mahler-Eighth conclusion would have worked on the inside track of an LP, but it sounds fine here. And Fredman’s swift traversal of the score, and the various omissions (whatever these may have been) do at least have the advantage that the whole work fits neatly onto a single disc; the original issue spread over four LP and cassette sides.

Lyrita not only provide us with Rob Barnett’s eight-page essay on the career of Goossens and The Apocalypse, but also with the complete sung text – all in English only. The text could have benefited from some additional proof-reading; quite apart from instances where the singers clearly deliver words slightly different from those in the booklet, we are also presented at one point with the delightful image conjured up by the words “about the throne I saw four and twenty eiders sitting” – presumably just in case anybody required additional warmth. But then, on further thought, why should such earnest and beneficial waterfowl be excluded from consideration before the throne of God?

I do not imagine for a moment that, given the monumental forces involved (including quadruple woodwind, wind machine, organ, brass and recorder ensembles), we are likely to get an alternative recording of The Apocalypse at any stage in the near future. Even given the occasional problems with the performance here, it is indeed probable that any revival would be hard-pressed to match the sheer excitement of Fredman in the score and the generally excellent sound obtained by the ABC engineers. This must be counted as a most valuable addition to the increasing representation of the compositions of Goossens on record. It has been available on the internet (presumably in a transfer from the LPs) but the presentation here clearly renders it both more valuable and informative to listeners. Those interested in British choral music of the twentieth century (and they are a growing body of potential purchasers) will certainly wish to investigate a work which is likely to be totally unknown to them.
Paul Corfield Godfrey MusicWeb-International

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