We should all be so lucky.
The career of German composer Berthold Goldschmidt, after a promising première in pre-Nazi Germany, stalled during his first 50 years of exile. For 25 of these years, he faced an unreceptive post-war audience in England and stopped composing. Then, in his 84th year, the world rediscovered him. He premièred in his native Germany and has had over a dozen CDs of his works recorded. At 93, he died fulfilled, having cheated the demons of obscurity.
Retrospectrum (1991), the title piece, is a one-movement string trio partially inspired by Schoenberg's wrenching String Trio (1946). The dramatic beginning, the keening violins, the shards of fear, and the bubbling over of doubt are all there. But unlike Schoenberg's heart-attack inspired work, Retrospectrum is less about pain than biography. Dedicated to his parents, it depicts the "ups and downs" of their lives. Sometimes it is fin de siècle melancholia; for a brief moment, it morphs into an off-key barcarole. A fugue fragment never develops, a largo veers closely to the pit of loss, a cello chord suddenly terminates the piece. Shortly after the Nazis took power, Goldschmidt wrote the evocative Variations on a Palestine Shepherd's Song (actually two interwoven songs) for a clandestine Jewish group. These variations are high-spirited and rhythmically complex. Pianist Kolja Lessing plays them effusively, haltingly; its struggle leads to affirmation at the end. Perhaps Goldschmidt could have compressed them by removing a few repeats from the middle section, but they are compelling nonetheless. Unlike most capriccios, Capriccio (1992) opens in a thick brooding mood. For a few bars in the middle section, it scurries about, then disperses like a summer breeze. Kolja Lessing, this time on the violin, plays this labile piece with darting forays and cautious retreats. The earlier Capriccio (1927) is more devil-make-care, with strains of decadent Weimar-era cabarets. Little Legend, Scherzo, and From the Ballet are slight miniatures, earnest and charming, but not particularly inventive. Encore (1993) sports a playful interchange between violin and piano, astounding for a 90-year old composer. Its abrupt ending creates – like all good encores – creates hunger for more. Retrospectrum's centerpiece is the one movement String Quartet #4 (1992). Like many pieces on this CD, its style is 1920s quaint. It flaunts the receding hairline of early modernism. It enlists Bartókian tension and Shostakovichian "knocks on the door." It contains a dazzling false ending and is peppered with twisted dialogues. Neither shocking nor dissonant, this crowd-pleaser is more accomplished than works most composers 1/3 his age have spawned.
What's with the CD notes? The English text is an abridgement of the much longer German text. I felt left out, like when a foreign film subtitles one out of three character dialogues. If you're compulsive, keep your German dictionary by your side. However, you may not need it. As with Bach's B Minor Mass, the music is impressive enough to convey the experience without understanding the text.
Copyright © 1999, Peter Bates