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Lukas FOSS (1922-2009)
Symphony No. 1 in G (1944) [30.39]
Symphony No. 2 ‘Symphony of Chorales’ (1955-8) [40.06]
Symphony No. 3 ‘Symphony of Sorrows’ (1991) [37.08]
Symphony No. 4 ‘Window to the Past’ (1995) [41.32]
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec. Jordan Hall, Boston, 17 September 2012 (1), 28 June 2013 (3) and 29 June 2013 (2 & 4)
BMOP SOUND 1043 SACD [74.11 + 77.14]

When CBS as part of their ‘Stravinsky Edition’ came to record Les Noces in 1962, someone had the bright idea of asking four leading American composers to play the four piano parts – both as a tribute to America’s most famous adopted composer, and as a recognition of the pianists as composers in their own right. Their choice, presumably conditioned by availability, focused on Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Roger Sessions, all of whom had established international reputations. Lukas Foss was the fourth and was comparatively little known at the time and none of his music featured at all in the UK record catalogue by 1979 although a substantial number of recordings appear to have been available in America, including an LP of his 1947 Biblical cantata The Song of Songs conducted by no less than Foss’s friend Leonard Bernstein. Generally however Foss seems to have been regarded principally as a conductor and pianist – he made his first recording in the latter role in 1948, and played the solo part in two recordings of Bernstein’s Second Symphony – and his symphonies seem to have been comprehensively neglected. BMOP do not claim that any of the four symphonies here are receiving their première recordings, but this certainly seems to be the first time that they have been accorded widespread circulation. I presume that some of the distinguished conductors who gave the first performances of these works – Fritz Reiner, William Steinberg and Zubin Mehta in the case of the first three – may have committed their readings to tape or disc, but if so none of them survive in the current catalogues or appear in import lists of the period. This new release therefore has a unique value for those wishing to explore Foss’s music - and a reputation that clearly earned the respect of Stravinsky.

Foss’s admittedly sketchy reputation, like that of Roger Sessions, seems to have been of a composer who abandoned his original neo-classicism for more adventurous techniques; he was even accused of jumping too easily onto the latest bandwagon of musical fashion, and a 1972 review by Max Harrison in Gramophone described him as a “magpie talent” producing “purely derivative fabrications” and complaining of his “lack of personal vision”. Not that any of these critical brickbats were directed as the symphonies, rather at other works of that period by Foss which were regarded by reviewers as imitations of other models – itself a major sin in the eyes of those writers who regarded novelty as the ultimate touchstone of compositional achievement.

His First Symphony falls clearly into the neo-classical sphere of much American music of the 1940s, even beginning with what the valuable and comprehensive booklet notes here by Matthew Guerriri describes as “a modernised Mannheim rocket” and “a quick pentatonic flourish that streamlines a Mozartian idea into a glint of chrome.” The work clearly shows the influence of Foss’s one-time teacher Hindemith, but it also has a sense of bubbling flair that one sometimes seeks in vain in the music of the German master. There are elements too of concerto grosso as well as a well-prepared sense of development, with themes that have the immediate appeal and impact of Copland. There is an element of grandeur too in the spacious horn theme which opens the slow movement, although the jogtrot elements in the central section recall the Hollywood western rather too closely for comfort. There is a slightly vicious sense of irony in the ebullient scherzo as well as a lop-sided offbeat country dance which is well removed from neo-classicism; the finale, after a heartfelt slow introduction, is a frisky romp which is superbly played here despite its evident difficulties in the pinpoint definition which it requires of the instruments. This is a work that would bring the house down in live performance.

It is unfortunate that the relative lengths of the symphonies mean that the First and Fourth have to be coupled on the first CD, relegating the Second and Third to the second disc, the more so in that the Fourth inhabits such a different world from the First. I found that in order to get a coherent idea of Foss’s development it was much preferable to move directly to the second disc, where the Symphony of Chorales showed a much closer relationship to Foss’s earlier style. There was again the sense of rhythmic impulse and liveliness, despite the evident changes in aesthetic which had occurred during the intervening ten years; the horn solo near the start bore a certain family relationship to that in the slow movement of the First although the accompaniment with its repeated piano notes showed the influence of neo-classical style very much in abeyance even when the busy string figurations demonstrated the presence of Hindemith in the background somewhere. Even the citation of the various Bach chorales which form the backbone of the music are well removed from simple quotation – the saxophone declamation of Chorale No 90 in the first movement remains quite startling. The difficulties of the writing are again well managed by the orchestra, although some passages could perhaps be a little more tidily co-ordinated. The second movement strides along purposefully in contrapuntal lines, angular rather than poised; but the third movement merely provides more of the same, and rather less strikingly scored except for some delightful little harp touches towards the end. The finale starts with declamatory brass but soon launches into a headlong and furious scherzo with interludes that evoke the cheeky Stravinsky of The soldier’s tale. The gradual emergence of the chorale theme Nun danket alle Gott, when it eventually arrives, is oddly perfunctory, with the work dying away on the scherzo material before its final bars.

During the interval of thirty years which intervened before his Third Symphony, Foss’s music constituted his belated period of sowing wild oats, his works of this period being of the kind that attracted the sort of critical opprobrium cited above. The opening fugue, with its subtitle Of strife and struggle, is resolutely twelve-tone in manner and produces a rather barren effect in the composer’s concern to make every contrapuntal thread audible. The contrast between the slow-moving main subject and the agitated second theme recalls the techniques of Ives’s Unanswered question, but without that work’s concision or programmatic intent. After this the heartfelt Elegy for Ann Frank comes as a blessed relief, described in the booklet as a “yearning consolation” with the Horst Wessel Lied sounding a note of menace in the background. This was originally written as a separate work including narrated section of Ann Frank’s diary, and it would be good to hear it in that form when I imagine it would be most effective. (It has been recorded both in a chamber arrangement and in a piano version with narrative, but I suspect it would work even better with narrator and full orchestra.) The third movement, here subtitled Wasteland (with suitable quotations from T S Eliot) originally existed as an independent orchestral movement entitled Exeunt, and returns us to the twelve-tone counterpoint of the opening, now even more “grimly methodical” as the booklet note describes it. It is in passages like this that one can appreciate the critical opinions of Max Harrison; this is music that sounds fabricated indeed, with nothing to break the slowly evolving greyness of the slow evolution of the lines which seem to make their slow progress without the slightest sign of reaching any meaningful conclusion. One welcomes the arrival of the final Prayer, similarly slow but now featuring a wistful melodic cantilena in what the booklet describes as “an almost nostalgically neo-classical vein” which finally provides a focus for what has gone before. This is chillingly effective.

Returning to the first CD for the Fourth Symphony written four years after its predecessor, one again encounters the slow-moving contrapuntal contrast between fast and slow material. But since Foss here adopts as the basis for his music reminiscences of works from his earlier career – hence the title Window to the Past – there is more sheerly memorable material. Indeed the opening movement sounds remarkably close in style to Barber’s Essays for orchestra with their juxtaposition of fast scherzo-like passages and more sustained harmonic themes. The second movement is based on an ‘early song’ from Foss’s Three American pieces, seen refracted as if in a sort of dream of which only wisps are discernible; but at over a quarter of an hour in duration it seems over-extended for its material, and sometimes the listener is left simply waiting for something new to happen. By comparison the scherzo (based on the composer’s 1953 piano solo Scherzo ricercata) is a clear reversion to Foss’s earlier neo-classical style, and the Fireworks final movement is a paraphrase on Foss’s 1990 work American Fanfare.

As on so many occasions in the past, listeners should be grateful to Gil Rose for both identifying a gap in the catalogue and filling it so well with these readings with his Boston players. The dates of the recording sessions seem extraordinary – two days to set down three of the symphonies, totalling nearly two hours of music! – but there is very little evidence of under-rehearsal. In the second movement of the Fourth Symphony Foss’s request for an optional accordion part is for some reason replaced with a harmonica (the mouth-organ type, not the glass version) which seems odd – there are plenty of capable accordion players around, and the part doesn’t seem difficult – but it works well enough in the capable hands of Ralph Rosen. And the symphonies themselves, when heard in chronological order, make a fascinating traversal of Foss’s career. Even though the Third contains a certain measure of dead wood, the First is a charming symphony in the American mould, and the Second and Fourth both have sections of real substance. The recordings, as always from this source, are excellently balanced and clear. This set should do much to restore Foss’s reputation as a major composer with his own distinct compositional voice; he clearly worked well within the constraints of symphonic form.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

 

 




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