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John FOULDS (1880-1939)
Dynamic Triptych for piano and orchestra Op. 88 (1927-29) [25:38]
April - England (Impressions of Time and Place No. 1) for orchestra Op. 48 No. 1 (1926 orch. 1932) [7:56]
Music-Pictures Group III op. 33 (1912) [19:06]
The Song of Ram Dass (1935) [3:13]
Keltic Lament Op. 29 No. 2 (Keltic Suite) (1911) [4:38]
Peter Donohoe (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 11, 13, 15-16 Jan 2006. DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 62999-2 [61:05]
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A 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.
This present 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.
The Song 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.
The Music-Pictures 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.

The 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.
The 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!
The Old 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.
This 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.
It 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.
It 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.
It 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 three parts.
The 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.
The 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 I say?
After this sky-high praise a few earthier comments…
I 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.
Lastly 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?
John France

see also review by Rob Barnett


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