FOSS: Works for Solo Piano (Complete) (Scott Dunn) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559179)
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Lukas Foss (b. 1922)
Complete Solo Piano Works
In 1937, when Lukas Foss was fifteen (and quiteaccomplished by that age) he enrolled at the CurtisInstitute in Philadelphia, then a new school, but littlecould have been new to the adolescent Foss, who hadalready been composing for almost a decade but hadalso already experienced the tumult of the mid-centuryworld, as, in 1933, his family had fled the burgeoningthreat of Nazism in Germany. This no doubt made for arather worldly, shockingly precocious teenager. AtCurtis he pursued not only composition, but conductingand piano. Graduating at the age of eighteen, he went onto study conducting with Koussevitzky at Tanglewood,and to Yale to study with Paul Hindemith.
Foss went on to become the youngest composer everto receive a Guggenheim fellowship. He won the RomePrize, a Fulbright, and all the while continued to producedistinguished, up-to-the-moment pieces, most notablyhis Second Piano Concerto in 1951. When theUniversity of California Los Angeles (or UCLA)appointed Foss professor of music, he replaced ArnoldSchoenberg, an auspicious lineage, but right for Foss,who, like his predecessor, wrestled daily with the idea oftradition, how to love it, but also how to leave it behind.
This collection of austere, peripatetic piano works isa way into the mind of one of our most distinguishedleading lights. 1953 brought the Scherzo Ricercato, aspry, swagger of a piece, with the rigour of Bachworking at cross purposes with spiky, jazz-likeinterjections; for Foss's generation, experimentationwith both the dark, after-hours smokiness and rhythmicfiguration of jazz was quite common, with LeonardBernstein being the most vocal proponent. According toGrove's Dictionary, a Ricercare is \...a piece of anesoteric nature; a technical exercise either of a practicalnature or illustrative of some device of composition". Sohere we have a chance to hear Foss, ever the explorer ofnew trends, working something out for himself; in thiscase, it is the flowing, Bachian music pulling against(and eventually being subsumed by) the wilder, freneticintrusions that defines this exciting six-minute"exercise".
Written in 1940, Foss's Passacaglia (variations on aconstantly repeated harmonic structure) is a slow, almostlight offering, but not without punch or bite. Again, as inthe Scherzo Ricercato, Bach lurks behind every barthough the music sounds nothing like him, one finecomposer both paying homage and wrestling with hishero simultaneously. Rather than, like Pachelbel'sfamous Canon, rest on a rotating harmonic structure andsimply pile figures on top of it, Foss moves deftly withinhis stated formal design but does not eschew denselycontrapuntal sections; he does not wear his strictures onhis sleeve. If one were not told by the title that this was,in fact, a Passacaglia, one might not know (save for thegorgeous return at the end, which almost cheekily lets usin on what the composer was doing all along).
The Grotesque Dance was written by Foss in 1938,when the composer was just sixteen, and was, accordingto legend, one of the many pieces he composed whileriding the New York subway. To our ears, there isnothing terribly grotesque about it. It is redolent ofProkofiev, but with a lighter touch, and no doubt thoselong subway rides had no choice but to remind him ofGershwin, whose style is all but aped in the slow middlesection. This charming, quirky little work is, however,quite accomplished by any standards, let alone for ateenager.
In 1947, writing something so strikingly tonal andbeautiful as the Prelude in D was no doubt something atwhich many would have turned up their nose; even thetitle alone was probably an act of rebellion. Foss's lighttouch is in evidence here, as he creates a solid piecewhich is as beautiful as anything he ever composed,another Bach-inspired work (he was probably thinkingof the great Well-Tempered Clavier, which couples eachfugue with a prelude, both in the same key), as, like anywork with this title, the question "prelude to what?" isnever answered.
A year earlier Foss composed his Fantasy Rondo,which is in and of itself an interesting title: "fantasy" asthe freest of all forms, pitted against "rondo," which isperhaps the most highly structured. Foss allows himselfa restricted space in which he can let his imagination runwild, and that he does, with easy, beautiful jazzharmonies floating above (and at times below) Bach-likemotoric figures, and wild spastic chordal interjectionsserving as the constantly returning figure, although thereare few exact repeats.
In direct homage to Bach, Foss (again on thesubway, again at the age of sixteen) composed a set offour inventions, like little fugues in two parts, but freer,less immediately organized. Like the Grotesque Dance,these are not mere juvenilia, but strict, interesting,captivating compositions. The Introduction is a moodymurk, angular (a little like Bartok) and slightly seething;the Allegretto is even more stark, quick and favored bymotor rhythms, though, again, more along the lines of aquirky Bartok dance than a Bach invention in terms ofcharacter; the Tranquillo ma mosso is a calm moment,but is both a bromide and an agitant, soothing and yetsomehow unsettling; the final movement, a moltovivace, is not the high-speed burn one might expect(though it is quick), and is perhaps the most directlyBach-influenced section of the piece, with sprightly trillsand a good-natured humour (which does, sometimes,take a darker turn) bringing this virtuoso showpiece to aclose.
For Lenny, written in 1988, is another sort of tribute,this time to his dear friend from their Curtis days,Leonard Bernstein. Here he plays with New York, NewYork, a tune Bernstein composed for his Broadwaymusical On The Town, about sailors on a 24 hour shoreleave in New York City. This song, the opening, is theirpaean to the great city into whose depths they are aboutto dive. Foss is loving and careful with his treatment,avoiding vulgarity or navel gazing and offering insteada calm (yet not un-bouncy) treatment of this famoustune.
The recorded programme closes with Solo, a morerecent work (this from 1981) and a true tour de force,both for pianist and composer. Here Foss wrestlesdirectly with the major musical force of the time it waswritten: minimalism. His piece, though a repetitivethirteen or so minutes, manages to do it in his own way,that is to say, favouring the motoric notions of Bach overthe motoric notions of, say, Reich or Glass. Solo,though, is more than a stretched out fugato; it is a truepiece of minimalism, which develops (or does not) in thesame way, but yet does it with the Bartok-cum-BachFoss has always favoured.Daniel Felsenfeld