FOERSTER: Festival Overture, Op. 7 / My Youth Op. 44 (Lance Friedel/ Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.557776)
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Josef Bohuslav Foerster (1859-1951)
Festive Overture, Op. 70 World premi?¿re recording
Meine Jugend (My Youth), Symphonic Poem Op. 44 World premi?¿re recording
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 54, 'Easter Eve'
Josef Bohuslav Foerster was born in Prague in 1859. Hestudied at the Prague Organ School, and upon graduationhe was appointed organist at St Vojtĕch Church, takingover the post from no less a figure than Antonin Dvořák.
In these years Foerster also had close contact with BedřichSmetana, and received encouragement from Tchaikovskyand others. In 1888 he married the famous Czech sopranoBerta Lauterer, and the couple eventually moved toHamburg. It was here that Foerster met Gustav Mahler, afellow German-speaking Bohemian, and the two becamefriends. The Foersters went with Mahler to Vienna in 1903,where they remained until they returned to Prague in 1918.
By the time of his death, at the age of 91, Foerster hadbecome the grand old man of Czech music, teaching manyimportant young composers. In all this time he alsocomposed prolifically. His writing was influenced bothby his close connection with music for the church,including a complete mastery of Palestrina-stylecounterpoint, and by his love of the theatre. Music, and allart, was for Foerster an expression of the beauty of thehuman soul.
Foerster's Festive Overture, Op.70, was written forthe opening of the new theatre at Kralovske Vinohrady inPrague in 1907. It begins with an arresting kettle-drumsolo, followed by an energetic main theme. The richlylyrical second theme combines Czech flair and Vienneseelegance. All three of these ideas are soon combinedcontrapuntally, yet with the utmost naturalness and flowingmomentum. In the development another theme is heard,also lyrical but with a striving, heroic character. In therecapitulation, after a dramatic pause, this heroic themeappears wistfully, before the kettle-drum solo returns tolead the music to a rousing conclusion.
The symphonic poem Meine Jugend (My Youth) isalso a product of Foerster's years in Vienna. The bounding6/8 main theme suggests the stride of a confident youngman, happy with the world. This soon gives way to anotherof Foerster's gorgeously lyrical second themes, with adelicacy and radiance of scoring that here almost looksforward to Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. These two ideasare developed with a wide variety of mood and expression,including some meltingly beautiful tranquil passages, untila broad climax is reached. A new, song-like theme thenappears, marked Andante religioso, which may representthe deep importance of faith in Foerster's life. Therecapitulation begins with a brief but fun fugato, perhapsa reference to his years of schooling. The second themethen returns even more richly scored than before, leadingto a dissonant outcry, representing the sudden death ofthe composer's mother. A passage of quiet stillness ensues,followed by the wonderful reassurance of the religiosotheme. A brilliant coda rounds off the work, bringing thevarious themes together one last time.
The Fourth Symphony is perhaps Foerster'smasterpiece. It was written during his first years in Vienna,surely under the spell of Bruckner and Mahler. LikeBruckner, Foerster was a devout Roman Catholic, and theFourth Symphony is a direct expression of his deepreligious feeling. The first movement is a Mahleresquefuneral march, with a sombre first theme that slowly triesto rise from the depths. Twice the music seems about toreach a climax, only to return to the ominous mood of theopening. Finally a sunnier second theme appears, and themusic grows in warmth and radiance until a new, ratherchildlike theme is heard on the flute. The developmentsweeps in mightily, with the first and second themescombined in a stormy passage that eventually leads to ahuge, wrenchingly dissonant chord in the full orchestra.
This gradually dissipates and the opening music returns.
The recapitulation soon reaches a climax, where the brasscry out with a version of the second theme as a descendingtriad, which will become very important later on. The codabegins with an even more contrapuntally elaborate versionof the music of the development, the second theme givenforth by the violins 'with maximum exultation'. Despitethe tremendous energy released by this passage, the musiccan only return to the opening theme, pounded out by thefull orchestra. The music returns to the gloomy tread of theopening bars, closing with solemn chords.
The second movement brings a complete contrast.
Here Foerster's Bohemian heritage comes to the fore witha bucolic scherzo that would be right at home amongDvořak's Slavonic Dances. He then takes a cue fromBruckner's Fifth Symphony by giving us a second themein a markedly slower tempo, so that it sounds as if we havealready reached the trio. This folksy Landler has suchelegance and affected manners, suggesting that it might beaimed at high society, but it is a beautiful one nonetheless.
The real trio then comes at a slightly faster tempo, with achorale-like theme in the brass decorated with snippetsof the scherzo theme. The second part of the trio expandsromantically, with great swells of sound from the wholeorchestra that eventually fade away mysteriously. Thescherzo then returns complete, with a very cheeky finalcoda.
The slow movement begins with the lonely sound ofa muted solo violin accompanied by two bassoons, moreevidence of Foerster's superb ear for orchestral colour.
What can one say about a movement such as this? It ispure, radiant melody, supported by lush harmony andfabulous scoring, all the more moving for its completesincerity of utterance. The movement ends in a mood ofmeditative calm.
The finale, the longest and most complex of the fourmovements, begins with a menacing theme in the lowstrings and woodwinds. There soon comes a tender themein the violins gently striving upwards, which is actually themain theme of the first movement appearing in a newguise. This process of gently striving upwards informs theentire movement. After we reach a broad climax, a soloviolin then enters with a new theme, echoed by a solocello. The music continues in this lyrical vein until wereach a climax on the dominant of A flat. Then a surprise:a drum-roll ushers in a powerful fugue subject in thestrings. This is followed by the sweetly expressive soundof the second theme high on a solo violin. The musicgrows mightily, inexorably, until we reach a toweringclimax, the descending triad motif sounding again fromthe brass. Here begins what might be called therecapitulation, with the upward-striving theme returningin the winds, with floating counterpoint above in the soloviolin. The fugue subject then bursts forth in the violins,combined with the striving theme in the bass. These twoideas and the lyrical second theme are combinedcontrapuntally to magnificent effect (again, shades ofBruckner's Fifth Symphony). The music surges ahead untilthe sound is suddenly cut off, revealing the distant soundof a church organ intoning the Easter song 'On the ThirdDay Our Creator Rose'. The orchestra takes renewedenergy from this voice from on high, and the music seemsto build ever higher until we are nearing the gates ofheaven itself. When we finally reach the home key of Cmajor, the full organ joins the orchestra for a climax ofunspeakable splendour and majesty, the descending triadmotif blazing forth from the brass like a choir of angelspraising God.Lance Friedel