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Lukas FOSS (b. 1922)
Works for Solo Piano (complete)

Scherzo Ricercato (1954) [06:16]
Passacaglia (1940) [06:22]
Grotesque Dance (1938) [04:29]
Prelude in D major (1951) [03:22]
Fantasy Rondo (1944) [09:24]
Four Two-Part Inventions (1938) [09:02]
For Lenny: Variation on "New York, New York" (1987) [02:31]
Solo (1981) [13:17]
Scott Dunn, piano
rec. American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, 22-23 March 2003.
NAXOS 8.559179 [54.43]

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With this disc I got one of my best responses to music from someone who is more at home with the Beatles and Adam Faith. I was playing the last piece on this CD – Solo – and this person asked me who it was. I said an American called ‘Lukas Foss’. Of course there was a blank reaction to this as would be the case with most ‘music lovers’ up and down the United Kingdom. I pointed out that this particular work was the composer’s attempt at writing something approaching the ‘minimalist’ style. The reaction was that the piece seems to go ‘on and on without getting anywhere’. And she then added as an afterthought – ‘I just wish it would stop’. At least this was an honest response and one that I have sometimes been tempted to suggest when listening to some of the creations by Reich and Adams and Philip Glass.

It seemed superfluous to point out that in Solo, which was written in 1981, not only were minimalist procedures used but also Foss’s unique blend of Bach and Bartók mixed in with serial and tonal constructive principles. I rather like the work, although I do not see it as quite the masterpiece implied by Daniel Felsenfeld in the programme notes.

The title of the CD is a little misleading. It implies that here in a relatively meagre 54 minutes we have the complete corpus of music by Foss written for the piano. This is not quite true. There is an unpublished, but as I understand, available Piano Sonatina, which was the composer’s first work. At the other end of his career there is a Tango. Neither of these is included.

It is perhaps facile but ultimately instructive to view Foss’s career in three separate stages. The first, which includes most of the music recorded on this CD, involved a neo-classical phase. It was here that his love of Bach and Stravinsky was most obvious. The second period was much more avant-garde. This included Night Music for John Lennon and a Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra. He made use of twelve-tone techniques, controlled improvisation and a certain amount of indeterminacy. The last period, for better or worse can only be described as eclectic. He attempts to fuse a number of elements and idioms from the whole history of classical music. Most of the works on this CD come from the first period.

For Lenny was composed in 1988 and was dedicated to the ubiquitous Leonard Bernstein. The music celebrates one of Bernstein’s most successful musicals – On the Town. This is not an ordinary tribute. There is no sense of vulgarity here in spite of using the best known tune from that show – New York, New York. Of course there is a jazz feel to the piece – but the general impression is one of introspection and calm. A little gem.

The Four Inventions are attractive pieces that owe much to J.S. Bach. This work was an early one and written in the same year as the Prokofiev-like Grotesque Dance. Apparently Foss, aged 16, was sitting on the Subway (or was it the EL?) when he had the inspiration for these four well-crafted pieces. There is nothing juvenile about them – in fact Foss manages to take a genre which could always be in danger of being cerebral and turning them out as vital and enjoyable miniatures.

The Passacaglia was written in 1940. It is, to my mind the finest work here. The programme notes point out that Bach is once again behind every bar – yet it is nothing like that composer. It is not possible to second-guess what constructional processes (12 tone?) lie behind this work, however it is quite definitely Lukas Foss at his best. It is a slow piece that weaves its spell gradually. The highlight comes at the end when the original ‘theme’ is reprised.

The nineteen-forties saw the first performance of the Fantasy Rondo (1944); a contradiction in terms? How can a work be as free as a fantasy and as tightly controlled as a classical rondo! This is perhaps the most enjoyable work on the disc (as opposed to the finest!) Here we have jazz riffs working along side Bartókian figurations and generous hints of Bach.

The opening work on this programme is another strange combination of nomenclature. A Scherzo Ricercato seems to be an impossible confection. ‘Ricercare’ is defined as a ‘piece of an esoteric nature; a technical exercise either of a practical nature or illustrative of some device of composition.’ Yet this present work is hardly ‘dry as dust’ academia. This is full of jazz and rhythmic interest and even ‘frenetic intrusions’ into this pre-Bach form. There is no way that this work can be described as a mere exercise.

Foss wrote the attractive and surprisingly tonal Prelude in D in 1951. This once again owes its inspiration to Bach. Felsenfeld in his programme notes wonders what it is a ‘prelude’ to. I suggest that we just sit back and enjoy the simplicity and ease of this charming music and forget the what-might-have-beens.

This is an excellent CD that introduces the relatively unknown piano music of Lukas Foss to American music aficionados. Of course, in the United Kingdom, Foss is little known to the general music buying public, however if this recording spurs interest it will all be to the good.

The playing by Scott Dunn is totally sympathetic and benefits from his close association with the composer. One could not wish for a better production of this rare but strangely essential repertoire.

John France

Postscript to the Lukas Foss Complete Piano Music Reviews

Scott Dunn on Naxos 8.559179  

Daniel Beliavsky on Sonata Bop 001

I have had the benefit of discussions with Daniel Beliavsky about a few issues I raised on my reviews of the ‘Complete Piano Music of Lukas Foss’ by himself and Scott Dunn.

I made a comment there that this was not the complete ‘works for piano’ by this composer. I had noticed in the Foss catalogue that there were two works mentioned which were not recorded.

The early Sonatina was probably composed between 1935 and 1938 and was never published. It is now lost. Apparently Lukas Foss’ house was destroyed by fire in the 1960s resulting in the loss of many precious manuscripts and a number of his wife’s painting. Foss seems to think that the Sonatina was amongst those scores lost.

The second piece I mentioned as being omitted from both recordings is the Tango. This is also unpublished, but copies of the manuscript have survived. However, when Beliavsky proposed the recording project, Foss was adamant that the Tango was not included as a part of it. No clear reason was given. However the composer did suggest that as the work was in fact a transcription of a movement from the Curriculum Vitae Suite for Accordion it was not actually part of the catalogue of pieces composed for piano!

And finally, I noted a discrepancy between dates given for the composition of the Passacaglia. Scott Dunn on Naxos had plumped for 1940 whereas Beliavsky on Sonata Bop had opted for 1941.

Daniel pointed out that the year he gave for this work was the date of publication as was his policy for all the other works recorded. However in the case of the Fantasy Rondo, this was composed in 1944 but not published until 1946. Apparently Lukas Foss does not accurately recall the dates of actual composition – so the use of the publication date may be the best solution. Bearing in mind the tragic loss of holographs noted above this is possibly the only means of dating works open to musicologists.


John France.

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