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John FOULDS (1880-1939)
Le Cabaret, Op. 72a (1921) [3:31]
Pasquinade Symphoniques No. 2 Op. 98 (1935) [6:34]
April – England, Op. 48 No. 1. (1926: orch.1932) [7:09]
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 recording information given. DDD
LYRITA SRCD212 [61:07]

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I have always warmed to John Foulds. Firstly he is a Manchester composer and I have a number of connections – all of them happy - with that great city. Secondly, I regard him as one of the most undervalued of British composers. And finally he is one of the very few composers, along with Sorabji, Messiaen and perhaps Ives whom I regard as (possible/probable) geniuses.

There are precious few CDs available of Foulds’ music. Recent reviews on MusicWeb have explored the two symphonic discs released by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo {Warner Classics 2564 61525 and 62999) and of course the wonderful Cello Sonata on the British Music Society label (BMS 423 CD). The present Lyrita disc was originally issued in 1993 until recently only available at Harold Moore’s record shop in London but now on general release. There has always been this worry that Lyrita would ‘fold’ as a CD company and all the valuable British Music archive be lost. So it is encouraging that this disc and many others are to be re-presented to listeners.

It has been suggested by one reviewer that April-England is ‘light-hearted’ – although that same writer goes on to suggest that "the scoring is transparent and masterly, the sound world entirely of this isle." Further he mentions the debt that this music appears to owe Percy Grainger. Yet why would this make it light-hearted? This is certainly not the Gumsuckers March or Handel strolling along the Strand.

To my ear the nature of Foulds’ work is a ‘paean of joy’ that spring has returned to the earth: this is music revelling in the sheer ‘boundless fecundity (and) opulent burgeoning of springtime.’ There is almost a mystical quality to this piece that certainly is out of place filed under the label ‘light’ even if the music is approachable. Malcolm MacDonald states that this is an ‘extravagantly virtuosic’ work.

Foulds has written that "Such moments as those of the Solstices and Equinoxes always seem to be particularly potent to the creative artist, and no less significant the place in which he happens to be at the time."

I do agree that there are nods to Grainger here – especially the ‘ebullient’ opening and closing pages. And certainly the Australian was never averse to using a folk-song or two. But the philosophy of April-England gives it a more serious intent. Foulds stated that there are two main thematic constructs for this work – the opening fanfare type music which is supposed to represent the idea of ‘April’ and the folksong middle section symbolizing ‘England.’

This work, in its original piano solo form, was composed (or at least completed) on 21 March 1926 which happened to be the Vernal Equinox.

It was orchestrated in 1932 and received its first performance in this version in 1934. Yet this is not the full story. The orchestral version expands considerably on the original piano piece – especially in the complex and even ‘riotous’ middle section. It is here that we find the composer rejoicing in the beauty and diversity and freshness of spring.

Le Cabaret on the other hand is ‘light hearted’ and I do feel that it would sit well on any CD of ‘light music’ classics. I understand that this very short overture was once exceedingly popular with concert-goers. However, like so much music it fell into desuetude.

Apparently, it was originally part of some incidental music for a play based on the life of the 19th century mime actor Jean-Gaspard Debureau. He was famous for creating the character of Pierrot. Perhaps there is little clowning in this work – however the work is full of ‘verve and swagger’. A nice little ‘find’ that deserves to be played at concerts and on the radio now and again.

I had never heard the Pasquinade Symphonique No.2 before preparing this review and I lean heavily on Malcolm Macdonald’s sleeve-notes. This is a truly wonderful and lovely work. It was one of Foulds’ last essays for orchestra and was written during the composer’s sojourn in India. Foulds had used the epithet ‘Pasquinade’ for a number of his works – apparently it is an Italian word that signifies a ‘satire or a lampoon’. Yet there is nothing of these particular moods in this music.

The Pasquinades Symphoniques were to have been grouped as an orchestral suite or even symphony but the sequence was never completed. The three movements were to have been entitled ‘Classical,’ ‘Romantic’ and ‘Modernist’. It was never intended to write pastiche music – but to compose a kind of musical commentary on the three styles. The present number was to have been the slow movement. It is actually very difficult to classify this music – one could allude to Richard Strauss, Frederick Delius or any of the Post-Romantic composers. Yet it would be wide of the mark. Foulds has created a lovely, if slightly eccentric soundscape that almost defies description. The overall impression is of something very attractive if at times a little disturbing. I guess that the best two adjectives would be ‘shimmering’ and at times ‘overblown’. Yet this is not a criticism. This is a piece of music that cries out to be performed – both in the concert hall and on the radio. It distresses me to think that this is the only recording of this music available and that it has taken me 51 years to hear it. Absolutely stunning and gorgeous!

This is also a work new to me, but one which I could come to really enjoy and appreciate. I must confess that I do not usually warm to ‘Wardour Street Orientalisms’ or ‘faux classicisms’ – however I can turn a blind eye to this particular work.

In 1915 Foulds composed a suite for piano - it was in five movements and was seemingly written in ‘strict’ Classical Greek Modes. This work was entitled Recollections of Ancient Greek Music. The programme notes tell us that this was a ‘slow, austere, ‘white note’ music (that was) exceedingly varied in character’. It was perhaps typical of the composer that he claimed to have heard the piece ‘clairaudiently’ as if in a vision.

However the message from beyond did not give Foulds the complete picture. Apparently he saw these pieces as being a stop-gap and was subsequently engrossed in arranging them for different media. The Temple Chant appeared in an arrangement for twenty wind instruments! Eventually, in 1932, he scored them all for double string orchestra, harp and percussion. He added the fantastic last movement Corybantes and finally renamed the pieces to what we see today.

It would be very easy to play ‘hunt the influence’ with this work. In many ways it is written in the great tradition of ‘English String Music’. It would be hard to miss the Vaughan Williams’ finger-prints in some of this music. Yet it would be unfortunate if we were to regard this suite as being derivative. Malcolm Macdonald writes in the programme notes: - "Foulds’ Hellas – in its grave antiphony, skilfully varied textures, measured tread and melodic restraint – is like a beautifully composed Attic frieze, powerfully evocative of ancient legend, classical civilisation and clear Mediterranean light".

The six movements explore a variety of moods, including a Solemn Temple Dance, a Processional, a profound Dirge for a Hero and a Temple Chant. But the romantic side is not forgotten: The Song of the Argive Helen is a beautiful meditation that is perhaps more English that Hellenic. The Temple Chant is perhaps a little melodramatic – yet all is forgiven in final movement. Corybantes were priests in ancient Greece who accompanied their religious rites with wild dancing. Certainly Foulds approaches this abandon with music of great feeling- it is just a pity it is too short. It is perhaps the perfect balance of complexity and simplicity, existing somehow at one and the same time, which makes these short movements so attractive and meaningful and moving.

Much discussion of John Foulds’ Mantras seems to revolve around its dependence or at least relationship with Holst’s Planets. I note previous reviewers have compared the second Mantra with its trademark wordless chorus of women’s voices to ‘Neptune’. The last movement is reminiscent of ‘Mars’. References are made to Holst’s Choral Symphony and Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi. Stravinsky, Scriabin, Ravel and Bernstein are noted as being musical references to this work both from the past and present. It is further noted that along with Holst, Foulds was one of the first composers to take an interest in Indian music.

With any new or rediscovered piece it is always easy to try to look for exemplars – and perhaps this is no bad thing as it allows listeners to decide for themselves if they are liable to like, or perhaps even loathe, the work in question. Yet the down-side is that, for the very same reasons, it can prejudice the listener for, but more likely against, a piece. And more seriously it can suggest that the work about to be listened to is somehow a patchwork of six or seven composers’ styles.

The history, philosophy and background to the Mantras have been examined in these pages, so I shall be very brief in my outline of the work.

Throughout the 1920s Foulds worked on a massive operatic project called Avatara. Yet this Sanskrit-based mystical opera was never to be completed. All that survives of the vast amount of music written are the ‘preludes’ to each of the three projected acts. John Foulds felt that there was sufficient material here to make a considerable symphonic work – it is nearly 26 minutes long. The score was completed in April 1930 but lay unperformed until 1988.

The first Mantra manages to balance the chaos of eternity with the pandemonium of down-town New York. Rob Barnett is right to hear ‘jazzy’ overtones and the ‘big city’ feel of Lenny Bernstein. Frenetic is perhaps the best description of this piece. A friend described it as exhausting. Perhaps the movement’s sobriquet of ‘Activity’ explains this energy.

The second Mantra is devoted to ‘Bliss and Celestial Awareness.’ This movement is as long as the other two Mantras put together but enables the listener to be virtually lost in the shifting time-world of these pieces. Listening to it I was reminded of the ‘time-bending’ properties of some of Messiaen’s music.

The last MantraOf Will – has ‘some of the most barbaric and elemental music that Foulds ever wrote’. Technically this seemingly complex and chaotic music is based on the minimum of material. The score is marked ‘inesorabile’ and this dynamic is certainly a good description of this frankly frightening music. Quoting Malcolm MacDonald, "The culmination (of this movement) is a shattering explosion of sheer orchestral power." Perhaps it is fair to say that this music is even more violent and compelling and frightening than Holst’s ‘Mars’.

It never ceases to amaze me that we have what can only be regarded as a vitally important masterpiece which has been hidden away for so many years. And I guess that for every play of the Mantras (or any of the other Foulds’ works) we will hear a hundred, if not a thousand renditions of Mars and Venus!

I suggest that you do two things. Firstly rush out and buy this CD along with the two Warner Classics discs (if you do not already own them). Secondly, lobby the Hallé Orchestra as to why they do not appear to have John Foulds – a Manchester man - in their repertoire.

John France

see also review by Colin Clarke

The Lyrita Catalogue


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