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CLASSICAL  August 2007

CLASSICAL August 2007

Subject:

Music by Foulds

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 6 Aug 2007 10:08:33 -0500

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text/plain

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John Foulds

*  Dynamic Triptych for piano and orchestra, op. 88
*  April -- England (Impressions of Time and Place No. 1), op. 48 no. 1
*  Music-Pictures Group III, op. 33
*  The Song of Ram Dass
*  Keltic Lament, op. 29 no. 2

Peter Donohoe (piano);
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo.
Warner Classics 2564 62999-2 Total time: 60:32

Summary for the Busy Executive: Om and curry.

The music of British composer John Foulds (1880-1939) has begun to make
a modest return from oblivion.  Despite the fact that this process began
roughly thirty years ago, the outcome remains pretty much in doubt.
Major works still need a hearing, let alone a recording.  Finnish conductor
Sakari Oramo, successor to Simon Rattle in Birmingham, has helped the
good fight with even another CD dedicated to Foulds.

Foulds, a composer largely self-taught, nevertheless had a tremendous
amount of professional practical music-making behind him.  He played
cello in the Halle Orchestra in his twenties and was in great demand
as a piano accompanist.  He began making a reputation as a producer of
high-quality bon-bons.  During his lifetime, people regarded him primarily
as a light composer and as a writer of incidental music, most notably
for productions with Lewis Casson and Sybil Thorndyke.  He provided the
music for the first run of Shaw's Saint Joan.  His idiom begins, like
that of Frank Bridge, in a kind of British Impressionism -- Delius, early
Bridge, John Ireland, Granville Bantock, and so on.  The failure of his
major work World Requiem to establish a place in the repertory drove
Foulds to Paris in the Twenties, which artistically was likely one of
the best things that could have happened to him.  In that lively swirl
of music, he began to show a quirky turn of musical mind.  Like Holst,
he became interested in ideas and cultures not normally shared by other
musicians.  In 1935, he moved again, this time to India, where he became
Director of European Music for All-India Radio, the BBC of the Raj.  His
music became increasingly influenced by a melding of European and Indian
culture, and he even wrote pieces using traditional Indian instruments.
He died, still young, of cholera within days of arriving in Calcutta in
1939.

The CD presents Foulds's music from all his periods, including perhaps
his best-known work, Dynamic Triptych, a piano concerto.  This was the
first piece by Foulds I ever heard, made available on a pioneering Lyrita
recording.  It was on the flip side of the Vaughan Williams piano concerto,
just so you know what I bought the album for.  I considered the Foulds
a nice bonus, but not exactly a world-beater.  Repeated listening over
the years improved it for me, however, and this recording, with the
amazing Peter Donohoe, beats out Howard Shelley's (no slouch, by the
way) by a significant bit.  The work falls into three movements: "Dynamic
Mode," "Dynamic Timbre," and "Dynamic Rhythm." Why "dynamic," I don't
know, but it makes no difference.  Unique in the quality of its musical
imagination, it also shows a tremendous focus from the composer.  The
first movement obsesses on a mode I believe Foulds invented -- D E# F#
G A B# C# D'.  There may not be a note in the eight-minute movement
outside those seven.  Notice that the scale contains both the major and
the minor third, which means that the music inhabits a fluid space between
major and minor.  The difficulty with most modal writing is that you
don't really change key and this kind of stasis can wear out the ear
after a while.  Nevertheless, Foulds discovers ways to create the illusion
of change -- a brilliant piece all on its own.  The second movement plays
with instrumental color, sometimes with the standard procedures of
orchestration, sometimes through quarter-tone tuning -- that is, strings,
usually, playing pitches "between" the black and white keys of a piano.
This already has plenty of interest, but Foulds throws in a gloriously
lush tune -- one that has features of Rachmaninoff at his best -- for
the piano.  The movement unfolds largely as the contrast and the
collaboration between the tune and its setting.  The finale, a toccata,
relentlessly drums an odd rhythm -- 2+3+4 -- fast, slow, and fast again.
Like certain works of Holst, Foulds's Dynamic Triptych is a one-off,
a singular monument of British music.  Foulds himself never produced
anything else like it.

The little tone-poem April -- England, written the previous year, lies
a world away from the determined Modernism of the Triptych.  We shouldn't
forget the role of the parlor-piece in the Victorian, Edwardian, and
Georgian eras.  Composers made a good living from them, and great composers
-- like Brahms, Dvorak, Grieg, and Elgar -- didn't shun the genre.
Although written in the Twenties, April hearkens back to the early 1900s.
It opens with a "merrie England" theme that could have come from Sullivan,
German, Coates, or even Grainger.  It's essentially a triptych (Foulds
seems to have had an attraction to three-part form): a bright, bouncy
opening; a long quasi-chaconne, and a brief return to the opening.
Despite the humbleness of the genre, this is a parlor-piece of real
genius, luminously scored.  The opening theme is yet another great tune,
something that, once you hear it, you really need to whistle.  However,
it really ices the cake.  The substance of the piece belongs to the
central section, a bass repeated, sometimes with variations, as a ground,
over which the most amazing counterpoint traces filigree.  The music
runs from serenity to riot, and the composer intended the section to
show the vital abundance of Spring.  You almost see tendrils pushing
and proliferating.

On the other hand, neither the "Keltic Lament" (second movement of the
Keltic Suite) nor the Music-Pictures Group III rise much above the usual
product.  The "Keltic Lament," Foulds's most popular work during his
lifetime, is pleasant enough, but, given the beauty and abundance of
Irish and Scottish folk melody, it was a bit late in the day to be writing
the orchestral equivalent of "I'll Come Home to You, Mother, When the
Shamrocks Bloom Again." The Music-Pictures comprise four movements
inspired by four paintings, with Blake's "The Ancient of Days" the best
known.  Unfortunately, the corresponding movement, the weakest, fails
to capture the pulsing energy of the picture.  As a whole, the suite
lies closer to the level of Coates and Ketelbey rather than to something
like Elgar's magical Wand of Youth.

The Song of Ram Dass comes from the beginning of Foulds's Indian period.
It's another miniature that sounds like a study for something larger.
Its main achievement lies in its avoidance of the pseudo-orientalism of
someone like Bantock.  It would interest me very much to hear something
built on it, the synthesis of two classical traditions -- one East, one
West -- in a larger work.

The performances are marvelous, the recording a bit bright for my taste,
but nothing I can't live with.  There's a companion volume on Warner
Classics 61525, including Foulds's 3 Mantras, just as good.  Oramo doesn't
take Foulds as a footnote to English music, but as damned interesting
main event.  It shows.

Steve Schwartz

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