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CLASSICAL  October 2008

CLASSICAL October 2008

Subject:

Foss Piano Music (complete)

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Fri, 3 Oct 2008 17:04:36 -0700

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Lukas Foss
Complete Works for Solo Piano

*  Scherzo Ricercato (1954)
*  Passacaglia (1940)
*  Grotesque Dance (1938)
*  Prelude in D (1950)
*  Fantasy Rondo (1944)
*  4 Two-Part Inventions (1938)
*  For Lenny, Variation on "New York, New York" (1987)
*  Solo (1981)

Scott Dunn, piano
Naxos 8.559179 Total time: 54:43

Summary for the Busy Executive: Renaissance mind.

Lukas Foss has genius, no doubt about it.  He composed, probably still
in short pants, and produced masterpieces in his teens, a pupil of
Scalerio and Thompson at Curtis and of Hindemith at Yale.  By the time
he reached these men, he hadn't broken twenty and had composed for at
least ten years.  While he undoubtedly learned from all these mentors,
he very quickly went his own way.  He also studied piano at Curtis with
Vengerova, who "finished" so many virtuosi.  He conducts.  He plays the
flute.  I can't think of a more spectacularly gifted musician other than
Mozart.

For me, Foss's music breaks into three periods.  The first is neoclassicism,
as he follows first Hindemith, then Stravinsky.  This is his one of his
longest stylistic spans, lasting until about 1960, and it produced almost
all of his "hits." Along with Leonard Bernstein, Irving Fine, and Harold
Shapero, Foss carried the banner of a vigorous neoclassicism at a time
when Stravinsky considered himself played out in that vein.  Stravinsky
even became a fan: "I find it beautiful, this music of yours." Foss
followed this with a radically experimental phase where he explored
dodecaphony, aleatorics (so-called "chance music"), group improvisation,
among a host of other trends, even mixing a few, all with his own point
of view and superb musicality.  You may not like works from this period,
but you can't say they're unmusical or badly-written.  About thirty years
ago, he abandoned the hard-core avant-garde for a more eclectic approach,
tonally-based and always open to new paths, allied to his earlier
neoclassicism.  For all his exploration, however, Foss never really
started anything.  He extended and deepened paths laid out by others.
Mozart didn't innovate either.

For a pianist good enough to concertize, Foss hasn't written all that
much for piano solo.  It all fits on one disc.  Despite the claims on
this jacket about recording premieres, the label Sonatabop produced an
identical program at least a year before Naxos.  However, Sonatabop is
an obscure label at a higher price, and Scott Dunn does quite well indeed.
One can safely assume that Naxos has commercially, at least, superseded
the pioneer.

The lion's share of this music falls into Foss's neoclassical period.
Really early works, like the 4 Two-Part Inventions and the Grotesque
Dance, follow Hindemith rather than Stravinsky.  Sections of the Grotesque
Dance (more lyrical than grotesque, actually) recall the piano writing
of Hindemith's second piano sonata of 1936.  One must say that the work
yields nothing in quality to the Hindemith, and Foss is roughly sixteen
years old.  If the Inventions don't reach quite that level, this may
have something to do with their origin.  Foss wrote them on the subway,
presumably while traveling to and from a lesson. An air of schoolwork
hangs over them, even though the level is advanced study.  Like his model
Bach, Foss often implies a third voice in the two-part writing.

Two years later, with the Passacaglia, we note that Hindemith is far
less prominent.  Also, Foss's impish sense of humor comes to the fore.
In a TV interview, back when classical composers were still considered
important members of society, Foss talked about Mozart's love of reconciling
incompatible musical ideas, and Foss's admiration and attraction for
this point of view clearly showed.  Foss has written a passacaglia, quite
serious in its expression, and yet with a joke underneath.  Most of it
doesn't even sound like a passacaglia, although the bass line carries
through, usually disguised as something else.  Foss does many things to
hide the bass line - break it up among various registers, bury it in
nearby contrapuntal lines, and so on.  And yet the piece moves inexorably
over a nice span.

Foss's love of contradiction comes out in the title of his Fantasy Rondo,
one of his largest works for solo piano.  "Fantasy," of course, leads
us to expect something free-wheeling, while the rondo is one of the most
clear-cut of the classical forms.  The piece begins, not with the rondo
theme (as in almost every other rondo), but with a longish grave
introduction based on the rondo theme.  The "fantasy" part comes down
both to capricious changes of mood and to the fact that the rondo theme
doesn't appear the same way twice.  Hindemith's influence has almost
completely disappeared.  Foss, in the manner of most American neo-classicists,
follows Stravinsky now.  Furthermore, there are jazzy passages in a style
we have come to associate with Leonard Bernstein.  Foss and Bernstein
were good friends.  Who thought of this kind of jazz evocation first is
hard to say, since both the Fantasy Rondo and On the Town both come from
1944.  One can say that Bernstein made greater use of it in works like
Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs and the Second Symphony (in which Foss played
the piano solo for two of Bernstein's recordings).  Foss, however, quickly
moved on.

On the other hand, the Prelude in D has no obvious conceptual ax to
grind.  I look on it as Foss's attempt to compose a perfect melody,
perfectly set, perhaps as in the second movement to Ravel's Concerto in
G, although the two works don't sound at all alike.  Foss's prelude is
in simple A-B-A form, as befits a song. It sings exquisitely throughout
its three minutes.

With the Scherzo Ricercato, we find ourselves at the height of Foss's
Stravinskian period.  Again, Foss does more than merely imitate Stravinsky.
He writes at Stravinsky's level and gives us something personal besides.
The piece combines features of the scherzo - triple time, lightness and
dash - and of many types of ricercar - the toccata, the two-voice ricercar,
the imitative ricercar, ancestor of the fugue.  Apart from all the
lineage, it crackles with nervous excitement and playful invention. 
For all its spirit, however, it strikes me as a major piano composition
of the Modern era.

The most recent work comes from the Eighties.  Foss composed For Lenny
on the occasion of Bernstein's turning seventy.  It's an occasional
piece, in much the same way the Bernstein's own series of Anniversaries
are, and like those earlier works transcend the original occasion.  We
have here a quiet little habanera on Bernstein's big and brassy anthem
to his adopted city, "New York, New York." It also manages to bring to
mind the stylized Latin-American dances of Bernstein's Fancy Free and
West Side Story - a poetic tribute to a fabulous career.

Solo, on the other hand, is a bigger, more ambitious piece. In it,
Foss seems to sum up his own musical preoccupations through the years:
neoclassicism, minimalism, serialism, and so on, all in one piece.  Solo
runs the longest of all the items in the program, and it consists of
such minute changes that you need to listen really hard.  To me, it's
a more grown-up version of Glass's keyboard music.  Strictly speaking,
Foss doesn't do classic minimalism, but he obviously starts from there.
Indeed, the density of new events speeds up toward the end, with a long,
mystical idea tossed from hand to hand about three minutes from the
finish, to something like a dramatic climax, and ending on an enigma.

Scott Dunn plays really well, especially in Solo, where the task
of keeping the musical thought together is especially hard.  In the
neoclassical stuff, his tone is bright, his lines clear, his touch ranging
from weighty to feather-light.  This is some sweet playing, and at a
bargain price.

Steve Schwartz

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