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S & H Concert Review

Richard Strauss and John Foulds, CBSO/Sakari Oramo, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Wednesday 25 February 2004 (RB)


This was only my second visit to Symphony Hall in four years. The last one was once again an Oramo concert which included a pricelessly rare performance of Constant Lambert’s Summer’s Last Will and Testament. He is not afraid of novelties and revivals. Oramo’s Sibelius cycle for Warners has, I think, been a real triumph. I am deeply enthusiastic about his CD of the last two symphonies which has a Mravinsky-like sanguine remorselessness that contrasts well with the blanched twilight effect embraced by Karajan.

Before the concert began I was able to attend the pre-concert talk given by Foulds-‘guru’ and editor of Tempo, Malcolm MacDonald. He spoke entertainingly and with professionally ardent, yet careful, advocacy of Foulds - a composer whose music he has lived with since the 1960s.

Till Eulenspiegel was given a performance that was full of character. The upper woodwind caught the rampant, roistering irreverence of our anti-hero who captures the irrepressible element of a Lemminkainen (his exploits amid the Maidens of Saari) though Till does not really strike you as a lover, more of a cheeky fool. The piece also seems to carry the essence of two other musical characters from later pieces: Malcolm Arnold’s Beckus the Dandipratt and Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon. The trombones and percussion blurted out the fate of the dissolute and irreverent Till who finally defies society and the Church once too often.

Oramo is a stocky figure, demonstrative but not at all ungainly on the podium, with an eloquent technique, which has his body seeming to rock from side to side. His voluptuous baton sweeps on one occasion clipped the top of the first cello’s music stand.

Before the break we had one of the two reasons that had drawn me to the concert. This was John Foulds’ Tone Picture: Mirage. It uses, pretty sparingly, the 23 notes of the microtonal scale. This scale, much associated with Indian music (in which his wife, the violinist, Maud MacCarthy was an expert) he used in other works in the first decade of the last century. The most striking of these is the exuberantly romantic Cello Sonata (one of the unsung masterworks of British music). Mirage is a work of delicate orchestral texturing at times sounding rather like the mysterious sections of Loeffler’s Pagan Poem, at others like the more diaphanous pages of Scriabin. The piece starts with the sort of sustained bass ‘growl’ that starts Dvorák’s New World Symphony. It is a rather episodic work but those episodes are often impressive and very beautiful. I think particularly of the fluttering feathery delicacy of the core of the piece where a wispy tonal mosaic seems to predict Webern as well as echoing the fly-away textures of Elgar in Enigma and the Second Symphony. Foulds also achieves a most magical effect with the repeated, quietly lapping figure that brings the piece to a close. There is hardly any performing history for this music but in its 22 or so minutes it struck me as perhaps a mite garrulous, but fascinating. Certainly it was performed with ardent sympathy and with an evident concern for texture.

The second half started with a work that I had never heard before but which has fascinated me since reading Malcolm Macdonald’s Triad Press book on Foulds in the early 1980s. The Lyra Celtica is a three-movement concerto for vocalising mezzo and orchestra. I say three movements but in fact the composer wrote only two and part of the third - perhaps one of these days Malcolm Macdonald will ‘realise’ the third. In any event the voice is used like a solo string instrument singing the vocal part to the syllable ‘aaaah’. There is even a cadenza. The same approach (but to different ends) can be heard in Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, Alfvén’s splendidly OTT Fourth Symphony From the Uttermost Skerries, Bliss’s Rhapsody, Medtner’s superb Sonata-Vocalise, RVW’s Pastoral and Nielsen’s Espansiva. The piece lasts just 15 minutes.

The singer here was Susan Bickley. Bickley has a wide-ranging and strongly operatic voice which has not suffered the depredations usually associated with her extremely active music-theatre background. She was excellent, I thought, catching the innocence, gentleness and wild strangeness of the Western seaboard of Gaeldom. There is something here of Yeats and Deirdre, of Usheen and of dazzling sun-dappled waves and shoals of silvery fish. This piece would also suit the voice of the Scottish singer Susan Hamilton who recorded the Ronald Stevenson songs not so long ago.

The Concerto, by the way, is not one of those insubstantial faery-flights you may associate with the etiolated world of Boughton’s Immortal Hour. After a Beethovenian gestural flourish. as if from Egmont, Foulds embraces a world of poetic, dancing delicacy which is completely un-kitsch. Once again, the microtonal touches are fastidiously used by both soloist and orchestra. The impact is rather like that of the slowly cycling string effects in Penderecki’s Hiroshima Threnody but here set in diaphanous impressionistic tonality. A repeated ‘siren’-like melisma is used three times by Foulds as a kind of mystic invocation about 1’30" into the piece. The work has a little in common with Granville Bantock’s Hebridean Symphony but is much more transparently coloured. This swooning West Coast rhapsody-inclined approach is offset with a dancingly vital vocal line from 5’50" and 8’03" touched with a Daphnis-like wand. There is also an ecstatic ‘bird-song’ accompanied ‘serenade’ at 6’30". The first movement lasts about nine minutes. The second includes the only noticeably Scottish touch in a work that thankfully avoids any suggestion of cod-Tartan. This is a triumphantly subtle work and was brilliantly performed by the CBSO and Bickley.

Warners are recording a complete CD of Foulds (Mirage, Mantras, Apotheosis, Lyra Celtica) with Oramo and the CBSO. Bickley will again be the soloist and rising/risen star Daniel Hope will be the solo violinist in Apotheosis. It should be out in October and on this evidence should sell like hot cakes. There are also rumours that the CBSO will do the Dynamic Triptych (piano and orchestra) and Grand Durbar March (which include parts for traditional Indian instruments alongside the Western orchestra). Sadly exotica such as his Symphony of East and West seem to have disappeared beyond recovery when he died in India in 1939.


Rob Barnett

Footnote: Oramo’s wife, Anu Komsi will be giving two CBSO performances of Sibelius’s rare and matchless Luonnotar on 13 and 15 April.

Read Malcolm Macdonald's pre-programme talk on Foulds.

John FOULDS (1880-1939) Le Cabaret, Op. 72a (1921) [3’31]. April – England, Op. 48 No. 1. Hellas, A Suite of Ancient Greece, Op. 45 (1932) [18’03]. Three Mantras, Op. 61b (1919-1930) [25’49]. London Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth. No rec. information given. DDD LYRITA SRCD212 [61’07] [CC]

A remarkable disc, and an essential introduction to a composer whose music cries out for greater recognition … For the Mantras alone, this disc deserves the highest recommendation possible. … see Full Review


Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Piano Concerto in C (1926-33 with revised 1946 ending) [27’45]. John FOULDS (1880-1939) Dynamic Triptych, Op. 88 (1929) [29’16]. Howard Shelley (piano); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley. No rec. info. DDD LYRITA RECORDED EDITION SRCD211 [57’05]

If you are buying this for the Vaughan Williams, you will not be disappointed. And you may just find your mouth agape at the marvels of the Foulds. … see Full Review


English Cello Sonatas: Première Recordings John FOULDS (1880-1939) Sonata for cello and piano, Op.6 (1905, rev. 1927) Ernest WALKER (1870-1949) Sonata in F minor for cello and piano, Op.41 (1914) York BOWEN (1884-1961) Sonata in A major for cello and piano, Op.64 (1921) Jo Cole (cello) John Talbot (piano) Rec. Bishopsgate Hall, London, 25 Oct, 29 Nov, 6 Dec 1997. DDD BRITISH MUSIC SOCIETY BMS423CD [81.10] [MC]

Collectors of English chamber works are urged to hear these interesting works; especially the Bowen. … see Full Review

Conversations of a cellist-composer Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald
Music of today [3] By John Foulds (Ivor Nicholson & Watson) 10s 6d [53p] net





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