Goehr: The Death of Moses

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LABELS: Unicorn-Kanchana
WORKS: The Death of Moses
PERFORMER: Michael Chance (countertenor), Stephen Richardson (baritone), Sarah Leonard (soprano), Gautam Rangarajan (tenor), Paul Robinson (bass)Sawston Village College Chamber Choir, Cambridge University Musical Society Chorus & Instrumental Ensemble/Stephen Cleobu
The intellectual baggage that comes along with every major piece by Alexander Goehr has its own power and inevitability; if composing were only about verbal description then Goehr’s music would carry an irresistible force. But the gap between intention and execution looms larger in The Death of Moses, completed last year, than in many of his earlier pieces. The events surrounding the patriarch’s death, as viewed by a generation that knows the horrors of the Holocaust, are related with a detachment that seems to anaesthetise any straightforward emotional response.


The Hebrew verses (in English translation) of the text are refracted through five soloists, chorus, and what Goehr views as a Baroque ensemble for the post-modern age, with saxophones, flutes and trombones; harp, electronic organ and bass guitar fulfil the functions of a continuo group. Efficiently realised by these university forces, the sound world is stark, unforgiving; the musical style is ritualised, closer to late Stravinsky (to works like Threni and Requiem Canticles) than to anything else. As the music moves through its tightly controlled circular forms it seems much less like a personal meditation on Jewish history than an objective piece of documentation. There’s certainly nothing else quite like it in contemporary music, and nothing else remotely similar in Goehr’s own distinguished output either. Andrew Clements