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John FOULDS (1880-1939)
Three Mantras from Avatara (1. Of Action and Vision of Terrestrial Avataras; 2. Of Bliss and Vision of Celestial Avataras; 3. Of Will and Vision of Cosmic Avataras) Op. 61b (1930) [26:28]
Lyra Celtica - concerto for voice and orchestra Op. 50 (1925) [16:11]
Apotheosis (Elegy) - Music Poem No. 4 for violin and orchestra Op. 18 (1907) [11:18]
Mirage - Music Poem No. 5 for orchestra Op. 20 (1910) [23:49]
Susan Bickley (mezzo)
Daniel Hope (violin)
City of Birmingham SO/Sakari Oramo
rec. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 26-27 Feb 2004. DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61525-2 [78:13]


Foulds was a figure distant from the charmed circle we associate with the Academy and the College in London. His music is amongst the most voluptuously liberated in the English scene from the first half of the last century; the least Victorian of voices.

Manchester-born, he was the son of a Hallé bassoonist. He joined his father's orchestra in 1900 as a cellist and his insight into that instrument can be heard in the mastery of the Cello Sonata (superbly recorded on the BMS label by Jo Cole and John Talbot review) as well as in a compact Cello Concerto (awaiting a recording premiere; broadcast by Raphael Wallfisch during the 1980s).

With Holst he was among the first composers to take a possessed interest in Indian music. Whether he would have destroyed his opera Avatara if he had discussed his work with Holst many of whose pieces were inspired by Indian fabulous culture (Savitri, Sita, the Rig Veda hymns etc) or perhaps with Cyril Scott we will never know. However on the evidence of Three Mantras the opera must have been an extraordinary work. Borne of the 1920s, it is modern in 'feel' and boiling with activity in the first Mantra which has jazzy overtones and something close to a ‘big city’ Bernstein feel. The action is a blend of Stravinsky and Ravel, objective yet sensuous. The Celestial Awareness Mantra has the orchestra joined by female chorus gently vocalising to ‘aaaah’ in a confiding and silvery dream-skein related partly to Holst's Venus and Neptune and to the Keatsian dream of his Choral Symphony 'Underneath large bluebells tented .... where the lilies are rose-scented.' The choral writing acquires a transient ardour at 7:03 (tr. 2) in much the same way as in Flos Campi. If you are looking for music that is still and balmy yet is not soporific go no further. I can imagine this second Mantra working well on BBC Radio 4's meditative-reflective programme 'Something Understood'. By contrast the final ‘panel’ is marked Inesorable (inexorable) which conjures the effect perfectly. I wondered at first if Oramo was abandoned enough for this but he builds up to barbaric wildness gradually. The music is always tonal and astonishingly there is no sign of Foulds' penchant for microtonal experimentation. This is a maelstrom of a piece wheeling and streaming with activity yet never as chaotically or relentlessly piled high as Mossolov's Iron Foundry or as Prokofiev's Ala and Lolly - more akin to modernised Francesca da Rimini. There is a Brucknerian pause at 5:03 then a pendant whirlwind bids farewell.

Foulds’ mature orchestral music is as enigmatic as Havergal Brian's, as lambent as that of Ravel, as delicate as Holst, as ecstatic as Scriabin and as non-conformist as mid-late Frank Bridge. There is light and air in this man's music as well as lyrical release. While Holst's occasional debt to Wagner is apparent Foulds largely stands clear of that.

The Lyra Celtica is a concerto for vocalising mezzo and orchestra. It comes from a small corner of the repertoire shared by the Gliere concerto, the Medtner Sonata-Vocalise, movements from the Third Symphonies of Vaughan Williams and Nielsen, the Fourth Symphony of Hugo Alfvén and Rachmaninov's Vocalise. It is a work that transcends Highland shoddy and tartan curiosities and reaches out towards the lonely places, deserted strands and skerries, seas alive with silvery fish and seals, crashing breakers and the sunset dreams of Hy-Brasil. This beautiful work is incomplete although the two movements presented here take on a finished sense. I hope that Foulds expert Malcolm Macdonald will proceed to realise the remains of the final movement. Susan Bickley sings most beautifully. In this demanding score her voice is called on to perform like a violin; no words are sung. There are moments when the vocal line recalls Barber's Knoxville - an ecstatic innocence, a knowing sensibility not yet turned into commonplace. Highlights are numerous but I loved the transformation into carefree song at 8:51 (tr. 4) and the easy languid dance figure at 1.32 (tr. 5). This, by the way, is a work in which microtonal sways and slides are used as a perfectly natural extension of the aural palette. While Foulds wrote some skilled consumer music (he had to live!) such as the Keltic Suite, this work counts as one of the glories of challengingly imaginative art.

The Apotheosis, like Lyra, here receives its first recording. Good to see Daniel Hope taking a role in the long slow ‘burn’ of the Foulds revival. This overture-length piece for violin and orchestra is dedicated to the memory of Joachim although the brooding quality brought to it by Hope reminded me instantly of Sarasate and Saint-Saëns' Iberian pieces. It rises several times to a clawing heavyweight statement and then falls away to Beethovenian and Brahmsian Olympian gravitas. This is a work in handsome tribute to the German romantic mainstream.

Mirage has also been recorded before although without the polish of this performance. In any event that Forlane double CD set (UCD 16724/25) with music by Parry and Havergal Brian is no longer available (unless you know better). The ADD Forlane recording was made in July/August 1981 and was first issued in a 3 LP box. I played it again for comparison purposes and despite a gentle rain of hiss this is not a performance to be dismissed completely. Hager does wonders with the Luxembourg Radio Symphony Orchestra but Oramo and the Birmingham players are more secure and confident. Not that they are always to be preferred e.g. at 3.25 the brass call out more imperiously with Hager. The Hager version plays for 25:22 against Oramo's 23:49.

The basic ideas of this grandiloquent 1910 tone poem are derived from Foulds' Vision of Dante cantata. The year before, his Cello Sonata had included microtonal episodes; in Mirage he uses them again at tr.12 1.35 and 2.32 as emblematic of man's 'ever-unattainment'. The music has its Straussian and Wagnerian edge but listen also for Scriabin and Miaskovsky at tr. 12 (2.22; 3.22). There is some saw-toothed Tchaikovskian brass as well as traces of Ravel (Rapsodie Espagnole) and Rimsky (Antar) (13.00). At 15:00 the crippled splendour of the music, where textures growl and grind against each other, is memorable and is redolent of very early Havergal Brian such as To Valour. The delirious birdsong at tr. 13 recalls Bridge's Enter Spring. The piece ends in a lullingly repetitive lapping figure ultimately finding a peculiarly lonely and lovely major key peace. This grows on you with repeated hearings.

The notes could not be more authoritative. They are by Malcolm Foulds whose Triad Press (later Pro-Am) book kindled the Foulds interest in the earliest 1970s. There is also a valuable and humanisingly biographical sketch by Foulds' son Patrick (b. 1915).

There is no direct competition for this disc. The Mantras can still be had in their Lyrita recording (SRCD 212) from Harold Moores in London. The Lyrita disc has Le Cabaret (a flouncy ebullient gem of an overture), April-England (a masterpiece of the standing of Enter Spring), the Pasquinade No. 2 (No. 1 is in the Forlane set) and Hellas as well as the Mantras. Barry Wordsworth conducts the LPO. review By a slight whisker Wordsworth makes something more impactfully turbulent of the final Mantra than Oramo; the Finnish conductor is a noticeable minute slower in the Mantra of Bliss. Timings are not drastically adrift from each other:-
Wordsworth Oramo
Mantra 1 5:23 6:04
Mantra 2 13:01 14:08
Mantra 3 6:44 6:57

However the two discs are pretty much complementary in repertoire terms. If you have to have just one orchestral Foulds disc on your shelves the Warner is the one to choose. It is a triumph and offers one major work after another in inspirational performances spanning 78 minutes as opposed to the 61 minutes of the Lyrita. Lyra Celtica, for all of its severed torso, is a work soused in quintessential folk melody: it crowns this treasurable release. When will we hear Foulds’ World Requiem or its a cappella counterpart, Julius Harrison’s Requiem of Archangels?

Rob Barnett

See also review by John Talbot

also of interest

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.

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.

JOHN FOULDS (1880-1939) Works for string quartet Quartetto Intimo (1935) 32.32 Quartetto Geniale (1935) 7.33 Aquarelles (1921) 12.51 Endellion Quartet rec St Peter's, Notting Hill Gate, 25/26 July 1981 PEARL SHE CD 9564 [53.39] [RB]

Do not forget this simply superb Foulds disc. Foulds captured in all his dangerous and tumultuously inventive lyricism.

JOHN FOULDS by Malcolm Macdonald - a pre-concert talk

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)

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

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