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S & H Concert Review

Foulds, Prokofiev, Stravinsky; Akiko Suwanai (violin) Leon McCawley (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 10th February 2004 (CT)

Who’s afraid of twentieth century music? Well, I would hope no one when a programme consists of Prokofiev’s lyrical Second Violin Concerto complete with intriguing soloist, Stravinsky’s effervescent Petrushka and John Foulds’ (admittedly an unknown quantity for many) magnificently gargantuan Three Mantras, a work that has the capacity to make Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite sound like a gentle stroll in the park on a Sunday afternoon. Yet something kept the audience away from this concert resulting in a Symphony Hall that I would estimate was barely more than a third full. Maybe everyone was at home listening to the live Radio Three broadcast on their digital radios?

Whatever the reason, it was clear from the outset that nothing was going to faze Oramo and his players who had the bit between their teeth from the tumultuous, cascading opening of the Foulds. The ongoing CBSO season theme of "Classic Asia" has already thrown up some adventurous programming and Foulds figures once again in a couple of weeks time when first performances of his rediscovered Mirage and Lyra Celtica appear alongside Till Eulenspiegel and Also sprach zarathustra. The Three Mantras are slightly more familiar fare, having been performed at the Proms some years ago as well as having been recorded for the Lyrita label as part of an all Foulds disc that is (remarkably for this label) still available.

Foulds was a man of many facets and at one time was better known for his contributions to the fields of light music and theatre than the world of "serious" music. Indeed, many of his more ambitious works were consigned to complete neglect during his lifetime resulting in a good number not seeing the light of day at all. It is Holst that Foulds is inevitably compared to given their mutual interest in the mystical and the music of Asia. Yet unlike Holst, whose studies concentrated on the culture and translation of Sanskrit, Foulds made a close study of Indian music itself, experimenting with quartertones and using raga based elements within his compositions.

Once again, Sakari Oramo showed himself to be a champion of English repertoire and a conductor of huge physical and interpretative energy. The opening ‘Mantra of Action’, marked Impetuoso, possessed an almost demonic heat, providing a huge workout for the orchestra who clearly relished the challenges of the music as much as Oramo in playing of astounding athleticism and enthusiasm. The long central ‘Mantra of Bliss’ is based on a repeated raga that is gradually embellished and ornamented but never deviates from its initial rhythmic patterns. It is a mesmerising creation; music that radiates an iridescent sense of aura and eastern exoticism, played by the CBSO with fine delicacy in a shimmering haze of strings and winding woodwind solos. The final ‘Mantra of Will’ initially has a fleeting feeling of Arthur Bliss about it before descending headlong into music of barbaric violence. In much of this music the overriding impression is of a composer years ahead of his time, creating dense and at time highly complex multi-layers of sound. To hear the orchestra in the kind of form they showed here is a thrilling experience and one that deserves to draw a more substantial audience for the forthcoming Foulds works at the end of the month.

Akiko Suwanai has previously worked with the CBSO on several occasions, perhaps most notably in her recording of the Sibelius and Walton Violin Concertos with the orchestra, also under Oramo. She comes with an impressive pedigree, youngest ever winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1990 and the (increasingly rare) distinction of an exclusive recording contract with Universal since 1996, for whom she has steadily produced one recording a year since. On this occasion her elegant, yet slight, even waif-like figure was accentuated by a striking red dress that showed her in stark relief against the evening wear of the orchestra. I say this only because her playing seemed in so many ways to match the pristine quality of her physical appearance. From her opening entry in the Prokofiev I was conscious of her impressively accurate articulation, assured technique and sweet, pure tone. It is worth mentioning here that her violin, the Stradivarius "Dolphin" of 1714 was formerly owned by Jascha Heifitz. Yet for all these qualities I found myself willing her to be more adventurous and extrovert in her approach to the work, more dynamic and less mannered in her interpretation. There were certainly moments in the central Andante assai where she allowed herself to sing eloquently but the outer movements, particularly the finale, where Prokofiev comes closest to a conventional cadenza, would have benefited from a somewhat more outward, caution to the wind interpretation. Oramo certainly did his best to drive things forward but the overall result simply felt too refined for Prokofiev, even with the composer in lyrical mode.

In contrast, the performance of Petrushka that occupied the second half sparkled from the very opening bars. The attention to balance and instrumental detail that Oramo drew from Stravinsky’s ever colourful 1947 version of the score was outstanding, yet this was never allowed to impact on the urgency and momentum of the performance which was edge of the seat stuff from start to finish. The ‘Shrovetide Fair’ bustled with activity, Oramo ensuring that no pace was lost as the trumpets led into the first big tutti. No chances had been taken with the demanding piano part, with Leon McCawley having been brought in for the occasion. He clearly enjoyed himself and received a deserved ovation at the conclusion although it is fair to say that there were outstanding individual contributions from several quarters, notably solo trumpet and all of the principal winds with just one slightly frustrating observation. The recent resignation of leader Peter Thomas to concentrate on chamber commitments has meant that the orchestra are currently using a number of guest leaders. Thomas’s apparently understated yet quietly authoritative leadership of the orchestra has been one of the strengths of the CBSO for a number of years. Consequently, guest leader Alexander Janiczek’s antics of diving around whilst digging out every note flamboyantly with his bow seemed particularly unnecessary. Little matter. This was a Petrushka that generated an all too rare electricity and reminded me of the similarly magical performance of The Firebird by Oramo and the orchestra a couple of seasons ago. On the evidence of these two performances alone Oramo has as much to say on Stravinsky as he does on the less familiar fare of the shamefully underrated Foulds.

Christopher Thomas

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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