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
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 There is an unpublished,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
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.
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.
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
Postscript to the
Lukas Foss Complete Piano Music Reviews
Scott Dunn on Naxos
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
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.