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Arthur FOOTE (1853-1937)
Francesca da Rimini, Op.24 (1890) [14:41]a
Serenade, Op. 25 (excerpts) (1889, 1866) II. Air [8:42] V. Gavotte [3:37]
Four Character Pieces after the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Op. 48 (1900) [16:37]a
Suite in E major for string orchestra, Op. 63 (1907) [15:43]c
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. a 24 February 1997, Seattle Center Opera House, Washington; b 12 November 2004, Benaroya Hall, Seattle; c 11 February 2005, Benaroya Hall, Seattle
Experience Classicsonline

Dante's narrative (in Canto V of the Inferno) of the passion of Paolo and Francesca has, perhaps unsurprisingly, attracted many artists in other media (as well as poets and dramatists). It would be fair to say that that attraction seems to have been at its most magnetic during the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century. Amongst painters there is Ingres' Gianciotto Discovers Paolo and Francesca (1819) and there's Ary Scheffer's remarkable The Ghosts of Paolo and Francesca Appear to Dante and Virgil of 1835, which appears (too small to do it justice) on the cover of the present CD and can be seen in the Wallace Collection in London; the story is frequently represented in the work of the Pre-Raphaelites; there is George Frederick Watts' Paolo and Francesca of 1855; and it is worth remembering that Rodin's The Kiss was originally called 'Francesca da Rimini'. And there are many more paintings, drawings and sculptures. There are operas by, amongst others, Mercadante (1828), Generali (1829), Cagnoni (1878), Ambroise Thomas (1882), Rachmaninov (1906) and Mancinelli (1907). And there is Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini of 1878. So, when he turned to the subject for what he called a 'Symphonic Prologue', which was to become his second published orchestral work, Arthur Foote could hardly be accused of excessive originality. In truth the same might be said of most of the music he wrote. The orchestral works on this disc are accomplished and eminently listenable; but at every turn one hears the ghosts of Foote's predecessors and older contemporaries. Tchaikovsky, obviously; Brahms, perhaps even more obviously; Dvořák, Schumann and even Grieg; in his Serenade it is of Bach that we are most forcefully reminded.

Insofar as the story Paolo and Francesca inevitably invited comparison with some indisputably greater masters it wasn't an especially wise choice. Foote's work is pleasant and worthy, but at times a little ponderous and largely lacking the kind of passionate intensity which the story demands and which can be found in both Tchaikovsky and the Italian opera composers. Foote's music operates within a kind of generic emotional language which doesn't do much to evoke the particularities of his subject matter. This, I find, is music which invites a damning with faint praise - it isn't really special, but it is far from bad.

The Four Character Pieces after the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam are more individual and more attractive. Each of the pieces is explicitly inked to one or more quatrains from Edward Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The first responds to the quatrain beginning 'Iram indeed is gone with all his Rose, / And Jamshid's Sev'n-ring'd Cup where no one knows' and in its limpid clarinet-led andante it has a fitting sense of the mutable and the evanescent; the second piece is in two sections, marked allegro deciso and più moderato, and articulates a musical interpretation, initially, of the quatrain beginning 'They Say the Lion and the Lizard keep…', with some apt orchestral power reinforcing the quatrain's later phrase which tells of Bahrám the hunter and how 'the wild Ass / Stamps o'er his head'; the second section returns to the mood of glories lost and the passing of time, some of the writing for strings being particularly attractive here, before the first section is reprised. The third piece has as its motto the famous (and much parodied) quatrain beginning 'A Book of Verses underneath the Bough' and creates an atmosphere of tranquillity which is meditative and comforting (again the string writing is impressive). The last piece has a three part structure, organised in response to two quatrains, with the opening and closing sections related to Fitzgerald's quatrain which begins 'Yon rising Moon that looks for us again', the central section being built on the quatrain which opens 'Waste not your Hour, nor in the vain pursuit'. There's an attractive sense of abundant space and time (though not, of course, for the individual human life) in Foote's music here, the central section graced by an elegant solo for oboe. These are effective and interesting pieces, and I suspect that their brevity does Foote a favour.

Certainly the initially attractive Air, of 1889, from his Serenade, although it has some lovely melodic writing, is somewhat in danger of overstaying its welcome - it doesn't quite have the power to hold one's interest in the way that Samuel Barber's Adagio does. The Gavotte - where like the Air, Foote's study of Bach is evident - comes across as pastiche, albeit attractive and thoroughly competent pastiche. There is more individuality in the Suite of 1907 though, paradoxically it is an individuality which seems largely to be created by the way in which Foote's music glances off, so to speak, that of predecessors such as Tchaikovsky and Brahms. The pizzicato section which opens the central movement is thoroughly attractive in a quasi-Tchaikovskian fashion and the Fugue which closes this three movement suite has a Brahmsian dignity and weight. Like pretty well everything else on this disc it will reward repeated listenings, without ever quite persuading one that one is in the presence of greatness.

The earlier recordings are slightly less focused than those of 2007, but the difference will surely not trouble many listeners.

Glyn Pursglove

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and William Kreindler



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