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Kenneth FUCHS (b. 1956)
United Artists (for orchestra) (2006) 1 [5:31]
Quiet in the Land (Idyll for mixed quintet) (2004) 2 [12:18]
Fire, Ice, and Summer Bronze (Idyll for brass quintet) (1986) 3 [12:17] (I. Fire and Ice [7:12]; II. Summer Bronze [5:05])
Autumn Rhythm (Idyll for woodwind quartet) (2006) 4 [13:12]
Canticle to the Sun (Concerto for French horn and orchestra) (2005) 5 [20:42]
London Symphony Orchestra1 5/JoAnn Falletta 1 2 5
Members of the London Symphony Orchestra 2 3 4
Timothy Jones (French horn) 3 5
rec. 21-22 November 2006, St Luke’s, London, UK
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559335 [64:00]

 


Kenneth Fuchs is fortunate indeed to have not one but two discs of his music recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. The first, in 2003, was nominated for two Grammys in 2005 and the second, recorded in 2006, should do well too, such is the quality of both the music and music-making. Holding it all together in the orchestral pieces and the mixed quintet is conductor JoAnn Falletta, who made such a strong impression in her recent disc of Respighi (review).

United Artists, the first item on the disc, was written specifically for the LSO as a gesture of thanks for their earlier recording of Fuchs’s works (Naxos 8.559224). At its core is a four-note motif, presented first in the Coplandesque opening fanfare. But this isn’t derivative music; indeed, the composer’s distinctive ‘voice’ is evident from the outset, and his flair for orchestral colours and sheer lyricism shine through in this atmospheric opener.

Quiet in the land is another of those vast musical landscapes that might provoke comparisons with Copland, yet Fuchs’s evocation of the Midwestern Plains just as the Iraq war was beginning is rather more complex and ambiguous in its sentiments. As the composer writes in the liner notes, ‘I wondered how quiet the spirit of our land might be’.

Even without this programme the opening bars hint at harmony, subtly undermined by vague discord - just listen to that quiet, agitated figure that begins at 1:30, beneath the more lyrical and expansive melody above. It is such lucid, ‘hear-through’ writing, yet it’s full of warmth. The members of the LSO manage to bring out both these aspects of the score, blending precision with feeling. And what a haunting close, too.

The recording venue – St Luke’s in London’s Old Street – is very well captured by the engineers, with no hint of brittleness or edge. The musicians seem ideally placed, too, which is particularly welcome in Fire, Ice, and Summer Bronze for brass quintet. Subtitled an ’Idyll ... after two works on paper by Helen Frankenthaler’ the first movement yokes together two eternal opposites – fire (the restless first section) and ice (the more muted second section).

There seems to be an underlying creative tension in some of these pieces, perhaps an attempt to reconcile musical and emotional extremes. For instance, in Summer Bronze the music is strangely mercurial – now lyrical, now dissonant, now both. But it’s that other dichotomy, between outward virtuosity and inner feeling, that these seasoned players – always secure, always poised – convey so well.

Based on a painting by Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm does contain some jazzy snippets, but the emphasis seems to be on sonorities, with long, lyrical melodic lines and, at times, a quirky bass. It is a strangely ‘in-between’ piece; to use the autumn analogy, summer is not quite done, yet winter is on its way. In his notes Fuchs describes how the two states are drawn together and, indeed, how one becomes the other: ‘An unusual aspect of this composition is that in its final section the flute, oboe, and clarinet metamorphose into their lower – perhaps autumnal – counterparts, the alto flute, English horn, and bass clarinet.’ It’s a remarkable sleight of hand, deftly constructed and seamlessly executed.

Canticle of the Sun – a hymn tune based on 13th-century texts by St Francis of Assisi – is built on a four-note motif. Written for the LSO’s principal horn player, Timothy Jones, this 20-minute gem has a radiant, all-embracing optimism that is just irresistible. Indeed, it is not unlike a stained glass window, all those fragments of high colour glowing in the light behind. But at the centre of it all is Jones’s supple and passionate playing, surely as seductive a performance of this piece as we are ever likely to hear.

As with Respighi’s Church Windows, Falletta displays a sense of line and phrase that is most welcome in this music. And while I’ve grumbled about the sound on some Naxos releases I’m prepared to eat humble pie on this one. The engineers have done an exceptional job capturing the sound of the LSO at St Luke’s; what a pleasant change from the dry-as-dust Barbican.

Early days, I know, but this could be one of my discs of 2008.

Dan Morgan

 

 

 


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