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(1903 - 1960)

Born into a German-Jewish mercantile family, Walter Goehr showed early signs of exceptional musical gifts. After studying in Berlin at the Stern Academy and at the Prussian Academy of Arts, where he was a pupil of Schoenberg, he became musical director of the Reinhardt Theatre in Berlin. Here in 1927 he conducted Kurt Weill’s incidental music for a production of Strindberg’s play Gustav III directed by Victor Barnowsky. Between 1925 and 1931 Goehr was a staff conductor for Berlin Radio, where he composed the music for an early radio opera, Malpopita. With the rise to power of the National Socialist Party he left Germany and emigrated to England, where until 1948 he was known professionally as George Walter. Having been appointed musical director for the Columbia Graphophone Company, by then a part of EMI, in 1933, Goehr remained with the company until 1939 and recorded extensively for both the Columbia and HMV labels. In 1943 he became conductor of the Morley College concerts, a position which he retained for the rest of his life, and in addition was the conductor of the BBC Theatre Orchestra from 1945 to 1948.

As well as being a proponent of composers such as Schoenberg and Eisler, Goehr was also a strong supporter of emerging British composers. He conducted the first performances of Benjamin Britten’s Serenade with Peter Pears and Dennis Brain (1943), Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time (1944), Mátyás Seiber’s Ulysses (1949), and The Deluge composed by his own son Alexander (1959). He was himself an active composer, writing music for films, such as the British productions Spellbound (1940) and Great Expectations (1946), and for numerous radio programmes, for which he would also often skilfully adapt music from many different sources. He orchestrated Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition; and edited for performance Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, which he recorded, and the Vespers of 1610, which he conducted at York in 1954. He conducted the first British performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in 1950.

During the last decade of his life Goehr made a huge number of recordings for the Concert Hall Society, founded by the Josefowitz brothers. These records were sold by mail order in the USA, Europe and Australasia on a variety of labels such as Musical Masterpiece Society, La Guilde Internationale du Disque and Concert Hall. The recordings were also licensed to many other labels, with occasional changes to the performers’ credits: on the Classics Club label for instance Goehr’s name was occasionally adapted to Werner Tergorsky. His considerable experience as a radio and recording conductor, able to extract from orchestras polished performances under studio conditions and often without the luxury of extensive retakes, was clearly a factor in explaining his success in this role. However not many of these recordings received either media coverage or extensive reviewing, and so Goehr’s achievement has tended to be significantly under-rated. He died unexpectedly at the end of 1960 as a result of a heart attack, in Sheffield where he was conducting a performance of Handel’s Messiah.

Many of Goehr’s recordings show a strong musician at work, and often his performances contain a satisfying balance of style and energy. Among his pre-war recordings of note are Bizet’s Symphony in C, recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra for the HMV label, and many concerto accompaniments, such as the Schumann Piano Concerto with Dame Myra Hess, Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Ania Dorfman, and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Egon Petri, all of which were published on the Columbia label. Later EMI issued a recording of Goehr conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra, which helped to establish the composer’s name. Among the highlights of his Concert Hall discography are Haydn’s Symphonies Nos 46 and 96, Mozart’s Divertimenti in D, B flat and F, Beethoven’s Symphony No 5, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3, Tchaikovsky’s Suites Nos 1, 2 and 3 and The Voyevoda, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, complete accounts of Bach’s Mass in B minor, Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten, and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and excerpts from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, to name just a few.

Goehr was also a prolific accompanist for the label, making many recordings with soloists such as the violinists Riccardo Odnoposoff and Manoug Parikian, cellist Paul Tortelier, and pianists Artur Balsam and Grant Johannesen. Of especial interest among this group of recordings are those which Goehr made with the Australian pianist Noel Mewton-Wood. These included Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4, Chopin’s Concertos Nos 1 and 2, the concertos by Schumann, Stravinsky and Bliss, Tchaikovsky’s Concertos Nos 1, 2, 3 and the Concert Fantasy, and Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Trumpet. The commercial penetration of the Concert Hall organisation was extensive, and through his numerous recordings for the label, Walter Goehr became a significant figure in the general public’s post-war musical world.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).

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GOEHR, W.: Malpopita [Opera] Capriccio
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