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Arthur FOOTE (1853-1937)
Francesca da Rimini, Op. 24 (1890) [14:41]
Serenade, Op. 25 (excerpts) (1889, 1866) II. Air [8:42] V. Gavotte [3:37]
Four Character Pieces after the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Op. 48 (1900) [16:37]
Suite in E major for string orchestra, Op. 63 (1907) [15:43]
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
rec. Seattle Center Opera House, Washington, USA, 24 February 1997 (Francesca; Omar), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 5 January 2007 (Serenade), 12 November 2004, 11 February 2005 (Suite)
Text by Bernard Jacobson
Experience Classicsonline

While it has been pointed out innumerable times that the members of the New England School of the late 19th century were conservative and Brahmsian, it should not be forgotten that they all had distinctive musical personalities and that many of their European contemporaries were equally Brahmsian. Foote himself stood out from his colleagues in a number of ways. He was the first American composer of note to receive his entire musical education in America. Unlike his confrères he was, for most of his career, not an academic, but made his living by teaching, playing the organ and performing in chamber music recitals. Much of his music contains neo-classical and even impressionistic elements - rarities in the America of his time. Most important his music has a serenity and quiet strength that would be unique anywhere.

Although he produced copious amounts of vocal, choral, chamber and keyboard music, Foote only wrote seven orchestral works which met his standards. Besides the works on this disk there are an early overture, a cello concerto and a suite for full orchestra (none recorded). In the 1880s Foote produced two separate suites for strings, but was not satisfied with either of them. After many revisions he collected a few of the individual pieces into the Serenade Op. 25, from which we have the Air and Gavotte here. The Air is stately and quite Bachian, full of the composer’s restrained emotionalism. As it develops it becomes more emotional and betrays a certain American tinge at the same time. The reprise is very affecting, with interesting counterpoint and masterly handling of tonality. In contrast, the Gavotte dates from the composer’s teens, at least in its original version. It is somewhat more adventurous harmonically, with a charming middle section reminiscent of Grieg. Again, there is some interesting counterpoint before the return to the opening material.

A year after the Serenade was published Foote produced his second work for full orchestra, the Symphonic Prologue Francesca da Rimini. The work shows an excellent handling of both structure and orchestration, although the latter does betray the influence of Brahms. The repeated main theme emphasizes the sadness of the tale of Paolo and Francesca rather than some of the more stormy elements familiar from Tchaikovsky’s version of the story. The work is compact and to the point, with wide-ranging tonal shifts somewhat reminiscent of Elgar. A wonderful second subject stays in the memory once heard. The middle of the piece relies heavily on the strings, which reach higher and higher until a restatement of the second subject. This is followed by a crescendo leading to a summation of the whole piece, portraying Dante’s image of the two lovers floating in the air, but not being able to touch. Foote accomplishes this in masterful fashion.

The Four Character Pieces after the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is probably Foote’s masterwork. In it are combined all the structural and emotional elements described above, but with the addition of the composer’s own brand of “eastern” exoticism, one that is not at all sentimental or fake. Each movement is prefaced in the score by a passage from the Rubáiyát. The Andante evokes the world of the Rubáiyát almost instantaneously and shows a command of the orchestra one would never have predicted from Francecsca da Rimini. One can hear the gardens and the cup of wine described in the attached quotation. The second movement is a complete contrast, describing the great royal courts of the East and is one of Foote’s most forceful passages. The gentler middle section is actually based on the same rhythm as the opening. The slow movement describes the most famous passage ‘’’A jug of wine, a Loaf of Bread…”This is done with a very slow progress to a semi-crescendo, followed by a lovely pastoral. The final Andante begins with Omar’s invocation to the Moon though a set of rhythmical variations matched at every step by the orchestration. This leads to an allegro evoking the words “Waste not your hour…” with grandiose references to the opening of the whole work and then to other movements, as if to drive the point home before the movement dies away.

The Suite in E has been an American classic since its premiere in 1907, especially given the many reissues of Koussevitsky’s wonderful recording. This is a piece that requires exact control of tempi to be a success and it cannot be said that Schwarz totally masters this aspect. In the first movement his handling of the noble opening theme is first rate, as is the development. The second movement starts with a Pizzicato that Schwarz takes pretty well, followed by an Adagietto that is one of Foote’s most memorable utterances-Schwarz also does well here. But in the exciting final Fugue the tension slackens noticeably and doesn’t provide the comprehensive conclusion that Foote intended.

Although recorded at different times and in different venues, the playing on this disc is quite consistent and is yet another example of how well the Seattle Symphony does with American music. The woodwinds are strong throughout, especially in their all-important role in the Four Character Pieces. The strings are also very good in the Air and the Suite. The real yeoman work here is by Gerard Schwarz. He puts genuine love and attention into every one of these pieces and this disc will rank high amongst his American music recordings as well, even if his work in the Suite is a little uneven. Since the last recording of the Four Character Pieces was in the 1960s and that of Francesca about ten years later, there is no question of competition in this area, although the sound quality in Francesca and the Gavotte could be a little less coarse. This disk brings several essential American works back to modern recording standards and it is only to be hoped that we may someday have recordings of Foote’s other three orchestral works.

William Kreindler 

see also review by Rob Barnett

Other reviews of Arthur Foote on Naxos


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