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Kenneth FUCHS (b. 1956)
An American Place (2004) [18:44]
Eventide - concerto for english horn, harp, percussion and string orchestra (1980s) [21:24]
Out of the Dark, suite for chamber orchestra after Three Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler (1980s) [15:09]
Thomas Stacey (cor anglais) (Eventide)
Timothy Jones (French horn) (Out of the Dark)
London Symphony Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. St Luke's, Finsbury, London, 6-7 September 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.559224 [55:16]

 

With this edition in its ever-expanding and consistently intriguing American Classics series, Naxos introduces the music of contemporary composer, Kenneth Fuchs. There are three works that span his creative life from the mid-1980s and the present day.

Fuchs is of the generation of composers that grew up under the tutelage of the American neo-romantics (Fuchs' teachers included David Diamond) caught between the pull of the atonal avant-garde and the fascination of minimalism. Fuchs' idiom is strongly influenced by the latter, and he brings to it an ear for orchestral colour and the nuances of the American sounds that permeate the works of Copland, among others.

The first work on the disc is the most interesting. An American Place is a tone poem for large orchestra. It is as colourful as it is quintessentially American - in a soft-edged, optimistic, mid-Western kind of way. In his booklet notes, Fuchs says that the score of An American Place "reflects the palette of musical sounds that have developed in the United States during the last hundred years ... and is intended to suggest the rich body of music created by the American symphonists who have come before me and from whom I continue to take inspiration." The influence of Fuchs' fellow American composers is certainly strong, with hints of Adams, Copland, Sondheim and Diamond, among others, surfacing in the score. There are also more international influences at play. There is for example a reference to Bartók in the clarinet runs from Bluebeard's ‘lake of tears’ at around 11:08, which Fuchs contrasts wonderfully with bluesy brass. To my ears at least, there’s also a nod towards the sound-world of Walton from 12:48. However, while referential, the music never strays into pastiche. Fuchs' use of contrasting rhythmic motifs in the strings and tuned percussion and his characterful writing for woodwinds and brass are quite individual. The orchestral playing is exemplary and the conducting sympathetic and true. I do have one quibble: the booklet notes state that the world premiere performance was given by JoAnn Falletta and her Virginia Symphony Orchestra in March 2005, some eighteen months after this performance with the London Symphony Orchestra was recorded. It would be a shame if this discrepancy is a typographical error, and a greater one if this piece had to wait so long after its completion for a public hearing.

The second work on the disc, Eventide, is less substantial. A concerto for cor anglais in one movement, it seems to fall into three sections. There is a pastoral opening that conjures an atmosphere not too distant from that of Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending. This is followed by an eerie second section from about 6:58, with gentle dissonances in the strings and over-blowing of the cor anglais darkening the mood. Then a cadenza at 11:43 leads into a rhythmically driven finale which fades, after recalling the two previous sections, into resignation. The influence of the spiritual tunes that inspired the piece is fleetingly felt. Thomas Stacy, the work's dedicatee, plays with subtlety and feeling, although he is a perhaps a little too closely balanced.

The final work is a suite of three movements, each inspired by a different painting by the abstract expressionist artist, Helen Frankenthaler (the picture that inspired the final movement appears on the CD cover). Fuchs wrote Out of the Dark in the 1980s while in his late 20s. Originally scored for wind, string quartets and French horn, Falletta urged the composer to create the version for chamber orchestra presented here, and although the string quartet scaffolding could perhaps do with more support in the first movement, it is quite successful. The piece seems to represent something of Fuchs' own musical journey, beginning in a warm but atonal soundscape and moving "out of the dark" into a warmer, more tonal idiom in the third movement. This features some lovely writing for horn, rendered well by Timothy Jones.

Falletta has known and worked with Fuchs since their days at the Juilliard School in the mid-1980s, and her understanding of his music shows in her rhythmically aware and assured conducting. The London Symphony Orchestra is right with her in every bar, and the acoustic of St Luke's adds a generous warmth to the recording, supporting the atmosphere of the pieces far more sympathetically than the somewhat unforgiving Barbican would have done; this notwithstanding the perhaps overgenerous praise heaped upon the LSO's home in the booklet notes.

Altogether, then, a strong release. All three works are accessible and rather lovely, and although Eventide and Out of the Dark may not demand repeated listening, An American Place alone is worth the price of the disc.

Tim Perry

 

 

 



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