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Choral centenary

two seldom-performed works
by Berthold Goldschmidt


Two exciting choral works spanning a creative gap of over fifty years by Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-1996), the German-born British composer and conductor whose centenary is being commemorated this year, formed highlights of a superb concert by the Choir of New College, Oxford, under their charismatic director Edward Higginbottom, to launch the 2003 Hampstead and Highgate Festival. The concert, given on Sunday 10 May in the elegant surrounds of the Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead NW3, London UK, was also framed by two world premières, Canzona and Toccata for trumpet and organ by Robin Holloway, sixty this year, and the 'Cantatina' (1832) attributed to Rossini.

Berthold Goldschmidt
Berthold Goldschmidt

Goldschmidt's Belsatzar is a terse, compelling a capella setting of Heine's poem, composed in 1985 shortly after the composer returned to composition after a twenty-five year silence due to undeserved neglect of his music. It is a focused distillation of a lifetime's stylistic evolution and makes its intensely dramatic effect through the barest and sparest of linear gestures. Heine's narrative is conveyed with chilling musical veracity as the lyrical gestures of the opening couplets take on increasing angst, as the description of Belsatzar's feast leads to the climactic couplet in which the king of Babylon scorns Jehova, set to an ironic march evocative of Nazi jackboots. Interestingly that theme was to be used later in Goldschmidt's Third String Quartet, where it is symbolically overpowered by a traditional Jewish theme. Yet in this choral work, the starkly chromatic, almost atonal textures dissolve into breathless rests as the 'fiery message' is inscribed on the 'chalky wall', the music's gradual fall signifying the haughty ruler's immanent destruction. Conveyed with vivid detail and immaculate precision of intonation by the New College Choir, the work's stylistic links with the 1931 Letze Kapitel came over clearly.

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Copyright © 15 May 2003 Malcolm Miller, London, UK


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