About this Recording
8.573327 - GOETZ, H.: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Spring Overture (Cabassi, Magdeburg Philharmonic, Kimbo Ishii)
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Hermann Goetz (1840–1876)
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 • Spring Overture


The wide-ranging articles on music that George Bernard Shaw wrote under the pseudonym ‘Corno di bassetto’ seldom fail to engage readers, and his trenchant views remain as provocative today as they were in the 1890s. Like our forebears, we sometimes find ourselves vigorously nodding in agreement with Shaw, while at other times we gnash our teeth in fury. But there are also occasions when we are left utterly nonplussed, when we are forced to acknowledge that the world has changed beyond recognition. What, for example, are we to make of this Shavian assertion, which appeared in The World in 1893? ‘Goetz alone among the modern symphonists is easily and unaffectedly successful from beginning to end. He has the charm of Schubert without his brainlessness, the refinement and inspiration of Mendelssohn without his limitation and timid gentility, Schumann’s sense of harmonic expression without his laboriousness, shortcoming, and dependence on external poetic stimulus; while as to unembarrassed mastery of the material of music, shewing itself in the Mozartian grace and responsiveness of his polyphony, he leaves all three of them simply nowhere. Brahms, who alone touches him in mere brute musical faculty, is a dolt in comparison to him.’

From today’s standpoint, these ideas seem whimsical and decidedly opinionated. Yet Shaw was not alone in considering Goetz to be a genius cut off in his prime. Responding to readers’ requests for details of Goetz’s life, a piece in the February 1880 edition of The Musical Times observes: ‘Anything like a satisfactory record of the lamented young composer’s too short career has however yet to be written.’ The journal then lists the main facts of Goetz’s ‘uneventful life’.

Hermann Goetz was born in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) in December 1840. His parents enjoyed domestic music-making but they did not regard music as a suitable career for their son. Nevertheless, the young Hermann persevered, and he entered the famous Stern Conservatoire in Berlin in 1860 after only three years of serious study. His piano teacher was Hans von Bülow, who later told Goetz: ‘You were one of the few that I was happy and proud to have taught.’ His leaving certificate attests to his ‘artistic intelligence’ and ‘felicitous talent for composition ’. In 1863 Goetz moved to Switzerland to become an organist and teacher, first in Winterthur and then in Zurich, where he remained for the rest of his life. The ravages of consumption forced him to withdraw from public life in his early thirties, though he still had the energy to compose. His greatest artistic success came with his comic opera Der Widerspenstigen Zahmung (after Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew), which was given its première in 1874. For a while it held a prominent place in the international repertoire and was warmly received by the critics, including Shaw. Goetz died at Hottingen in December 1876, having, in the words of The Musical Times, ‘nearly attained the fatal age of thirty-six’—a clear reference to Mozart, who also died just shy of his thirty-sixth birthday.

This Mozartian allusion is apposite, for the Romantic influences in Goetz’s music are limited to the sound world of Mendelssohn (that most Classical of nineteenth-century composers) and do not embrace the far-reaching musical developments of Liszt and Wagner, although Goetz was by no means indifferent to the radical new departures of these revolutionaries. Compared to them, however, he is quiet and introverted, and his instinct is to eschew spectacular effects. He certainly forged no new musical paths, yet this did not prevent his music from speaking to those who did. Gustav Mahler, for instance, admired Goetz’s orchestral music, which he periodically conducted at his own concerts.

The Spring Overture, Op. 15, composed in 1864 during Goetz’s first spring in Switzerland, is lightly scored for a Mozartian-sized orchestra, except that it employs a larger horn section of four players rather than the customary two. It is programmatic music in much the same way that Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture is. In other words it conveys a wealth of moods and memories but does not carry an overt story line. Shaw’s partisan stance regarding Goetz comes to the fore again when he discusses this overture. Today’s listeners may not quibble with him for describing it as ‘beautiful’—after all, that is a subjective matter of individual taste—but they will surely take issue with him for elevating it to the level of ‘first-rate’, against which the contemporary orchestral works of Brahms, Bruch and Liszt are but ‘second-rate’. It is, of course, possible to veer too far in the other direction, yet any unduly harsh criticism can be countered by the view expressed in the Linzer Volksblatt in 1918: ‘In this work, Götz is more original than some of his contemporaries who, rather than serving us fresh green and blooming flowers, provide only a herbarium of dried Mendelssohnian phrases.’

Six years separate Goetz’s two complete piano concertos, but the artistic ripening that took place during that musical journey makes us regret that his third work in this genre exists only as sketches. The Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat, which was never published during the composer’s lifetime, was written while Goetz was still a student at the Stern Conservatoire. Cast as a single-movement work, it owes an obvious debt to both Schumann and Mendelssohn. The piano writing is frequently virtuosic, yet there are many fine passages where the rôle of the soloist is to accompany the orchestra. Goetz appears determined to demonstrate to his professors his thorough understanding of orchestral tone colours. There is some particularly effective writing for the wind instruments in the central Adagio section, which forms the emotional heart of the concerto.

Goetz completed his Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 18, in the autumn of 1867, and he himself gave the first performance later that year in Basle. It met with great critical acclaim, and the Basler Nachrichten observed that the work ‘is effective without playing to the gallery, and is, in the best sense of the word, modern’. Despite its success in Switzerland, the concerto was not taken up in Germany for several years. Late in 1874, by which time ill health had forced him to stop performing, Goetz wrote to his colleague Ernst Frank about this concerto urging him to ‘look through it with care before the message becomes clear’, and counselling him to ‘do so three to seven times before you decide whether or not you want to perform it in public.’ This suggests a hidden meaning, but there is absolutely no clue as to what this might be. When Frank did eventually perform the work, Goetz offered him some further words of advice, which provide some insight into the character of the concerto: ‘The first movement is not easy and makes the most demands on virtuosity. On the whole I did not have enough strength, but you will. My music requires a Chopin technique as you find in his Etudes, Opp. 10 and 25, his Nocturnes, Scherzi and Polonaises. Brahms needs a Schumann technique.’ The scoring of this optimistic piece is open and fresh, and as with its predecessor, Goetz favours colourful solos for the wind instruments.

© Anthony Short, 2016

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