Mancunian - or is it Salfordian? - friend of mind who regards
herself as quite an enthusiast of John Foulds bought a
copy of this CD. After listening to it twice she phoned
me to give her opinion. Firstly she warned against listening
to April-England immediately after the Triptych and
secondly she stated that she would not, metaphorically
speaking, rest until she had heard the said Triptych played ‘live’ at
the Albert Hall with a full house of ‘prommers’ raising
the dome at the conclusion. I agree with her on both counts
but was hardly surprised to find that neither this work
nor any other by Foulds has been programmed for this year's
Henry Wood Proms. You have to take the M1 to Birmingham
to hear this music. Fortunately for Foulds enthusiasts, Sakari
Oramo has taken a shine to his music and has been busy
playing and recording it over the last few years. Indeed
Oramo has insisted that Foulds is one of the most vital
and undervalued composers of the 20th century.
And with this I would heartily agree – yet of how many
British composers do we hear this said? Perhaps Foulds
is different – he is a composer with foresight; he is not
confined to a style; he is an experimenter. It is unfair
to try to pigeon-hole him. He has the vision of an Ives,
a Messiaen or even a Sorabji. Certainly Foulds was able
to write any kind of music – from the Edwardian music-hall
variety through to works that still sound a bit avant-garde.
However, and this important, he never uses any given musical
effect simply to shock the audience – it always appears
to be essential to the logical development of the piece.
A few brief notes
about the composer would not go amiss. Foulds was born in
Manchester on 2 November 1880. At an early age he was playing
in a local theatre orchestra before
rising to the challenge of the benches of the Hallé under
the baton of Hans Richter. Foulds was to direct stage and
operatic works in the United Kingdom and in a number of continental
cities. During this period he composed much music for the
stage – especially incidental music for plays. This included
such forgotten titles as Wonderland Grandmamma and
the Whispering Well. However the more learned plays
of William Shakespeare were not ignored and Foulds’ Op.65
was music for Euripides Women of Troy. During the
Great War he played regular concerts for the armed forces.
After the war he was appointed musical director of the London
Central YMCA and later the London Musical Society. In the
post-Great War years he composed what may be regarded as
his magnum opus – The World Requiem. This is a massive
work scored for considerable forces – both orchestral, soloists
and choral. It must have been impressive because it was performed
three years in succession during the Remembrance Night concert
at the Albert Hall. It is a work that has yet to be revived
for our generation and is surely one for which there is a
considerable urgency to be recorded.
CD is full of interesting, challenging and exciting music.
Looking at the minor works first, the Keltic Lament is
perhaps the composer’s best known piece. It has been recorded
a number of times and has been published in a few piano albums.
In fact that is where I first discovered it; the one truly
well contrived piece amongst a mass of second-rate salon
pieces. This is a typically attractive piece of ‘light’ music
that exploits the contemporary (1911) interest in things ‘Celtic’.
Yet there is a hidden depth in this tune that belies its
origin as a relatively trivial piece. In many ways Foulds ‘out-Scottishes’ a
number of Scottish composers. The ‘lament’ is extracted from
the composer’s Keltic Suite (1914), which was dedicated
to his friend, the actor Lewis Casson. I agree with Rob Barnett
that it would have been good if Warner could have found the
inclination to record the remainder of this suite. It would
be an interesting addition to the catalogue.
of Ram Dass is a serviceable example of ‘orientalism.’ It
is not a pastiche; it is not an attempt to write music
using the instruments or even the harmonies and scales
of Indian music; it is not a parody such as Albert Ketèlbey
may have written. Foulds has taken a melody ‘in the Indian
style’ which his wife had improvised. He uses the superstructure
of western music to create an oriental image – and is
entirely successful. This ‘trance-like dream’ bears listening
to a number of times – my only regret is that it was
not considerably longer – yet in the end Foulds is right – it
is perfectly balanced and beautifully stated.
Rob Barnett in
his review of this CD suggests that April- England ‘should
be played and recorded at least as often as Frank Bridge’s Summer and
George Butterworth’s Shropshire Lad.’ Now I can understand
this sentiment. Yet it would be wrong if any reader were
to imagine that there is some relationship between these
pieces. Bridge’s work is an impressionistic piece which has
Matthew Arnold’s ‘all the live murmur of a summer’s day’ whereas
Butterworth’s masterpiece has much more to do with regret
and sadness at the transience of live. What Foulds achieves
in this work is different. It is not reflective and it is
not impressionistic: it is a paean of joy that spring is
here – a revelling in the sheer ‘boundless fecundity [and]
opulent burgeoning of springtime.’ This is a wonderfully
scored work that well balances melody with superb harmonic
and contrapuntal writing. It never for a moment becomes pastoral
in the ‘cow and gate’ sense in spite of having a ‘sturdy’ folksong
as a part of the piece’s development. This is a splendid
work that ought to be in the repertoire of all British orchestras.
III has been described as Foulds’ Pictures at
an Exhibition. Prior to a perusal of the programme
notes to this CD I did not know that Foulds was a sculptor
and keen amateur painter. The Music-Pictures were
composed specifically as an attempt to portray musically
the composer’s response to a number of paintings. As
can be imagined there were volumes I and II of this work – however
I cannot find any reference to what these may have been
scored for or the paintings they represented.
present set considers four paintings – Blake’s ‘Ancient
of Days’ Alfred Brunet’s ‘Columbine’, John Martin’s ‘Old
Greek Legend,’ and an unnamed work by Paul Emile Boutigny.
Blake is portrayed with a rather mysterious march or cortège
scored for brass, woodwind and percussion. The effect is
generally quite scary yet the subject matter does not call
for sinister music. There is a slightly more meditative
middle section, before the cortège resumes and ends rather
frighteningly. Columbine is an absolute dream that
exists somewhere in the mould of Granville Bantock’s Pierrot
of the Minute overture. However here and there Foulds
uses a few bars of strange sliding harmony that exploit
quarter-tones. It owes nothing to any composer. Gorgeous!
Greek Legend is a considerable meditation on a philosopher
or Hellenic sage. It is by far the longest of these pieces.
It begins reflectively and slowly builds up to a shattering
climax before dying down into quiet reflection. According
to the programme notes it is written in the Phrygian
Mode and has leanings to the ‘folk-song’ music of contemporary
RVW. The final painting considered is a French village
scene in turmoil – the Tocsin or alarum bell has
just been rung and ‘all hell breaks loose.’ The music
well reflects this chaos.
is an interesting work that may not rank as Foulds’ masterpiece
but is certainly worthy of study and ought to be aired
in concert halls on occasion. If I am honest I enjoyed
it more that I do the work by Mussorgsky alluded to above.
is almost impossible to make sensible and coherent comments
about the Dynamic Triptych. This work is so impressive
and perhaps even ‘over the top’ that the normal canons
of criticism are distinctly lacking.
is pointless to try to play ‘spot the influence’ – I could
name a dozen composers who could fit this bill. Just for
fun let’s mention Messaien, Gershwin, Bartók and Lenny
Bernstein (not necessarily chronologically viable!). Anyone
who has listened to a lot of music will be able to produce
their own list. And who is to say that anyone is wrong – or
right? But understand this - it is not a composite work
- it is not a string of other composer’s pearls. This is
a big work; it is a confusion of styles that somehow seems
to be totally satisfying and unified. It is one of those
compositions that is stylistically ambiguous – yet works
brilliantly. One cannot help feeling that there are very
few composers who could have successfully brought this
off. We find jazz in this work; there is exoticism, big
tunes, even strange slippy-slidy harmonies that must have
been unique when first heard in Edinburgh in 1931 - yet
it works and works well.
is hardly necessary to analyse this work. Fundamentally
this is a piano concerto by another name. I suppose ‘Dynamic’ simply
means that it moves and ‘Triptych’ means that it is in
first movement is a toccata which sounds finger-defyingly
complex. The slow movement is perhaps the most romantic – yet
even here the composer experiments with his trademark quartertones
in the string department. This is sheer poetry. No-one
could dislike this music – no-one could fail to respond
to this goose-bump giving movement. And listen out for
the gorgeous clusters on the piano in the final pages.
last movement – which is quite short - is rip-roaring.
Jazz plays its part here, if not actually ‘big band style’ – we
are in the world of the ‘big finish’ piano concerto. Yet
even here Foulds is not content to use ‘stock’ piano figurations – we
hear wild music. We are aware of cross-rhythms and changes
of metre, clusters and complex chords. Nonetheless this
and the rest of the work is, on the bottom line, totally
romantic. This is big music. This is unique. This is essential.
Peter Donohoe’s piano playing is brilliant. What more can
this sky-high praise a few earthier comments…
did log onto the Warner web site to gain access to the
additional material promised to purchaser of this disc.
I managed to find this once but when I went back onto the
web to re-review, I could not work out how to access this ‘exclusive
area’ – so I gave up. I think it was an extract or two
from Foulds’ Indian Suite for orchestra. Yet I do
not understand how they could not have squeezed this onto
the disc – 61 minutes does seem a little miserly these
days. Let us hope that there are a few more CDs in the
planning stage with the excellent City of Birmingham Symphony
Orchestra and Sakari Oramo.
it is somewhat strange that Birmingham has become the champion
of John Foulds’ music. One would have imagined that perhaps
being a Manchester lad it might have been appropriate for
the Hallé to have taken up the local talent. But perhaps
the way of the world is that my Mancunian friend will have
to make do with a performance in the Symphony Hall instead
of those dedicated to Prince Albert and the Duke of Bridgewater?
see also review by Rob Barnett