FOULDS: Dynamic Triptych for piano and orchestra, Op. 88. April -- England (Impressions of Time and Place No. 1), Op. 48 No. 1. Music-Pictures Group III, Op. 33. The Song of Ram Dass. Keltic Lament, Op. 29 No. 2.
Peter Donohoe (piano); City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo.
Warner Classics 2564 62999-2 (F) (DDD) TT: 60:32

The music of British composer John Foulds (1880-1939) has begun to make a modest return from oblivion. Despite the fact that this process began roughly thirty years ago, the outcome remains pretty much in doubt. Major works still need a hearing, let alone a recording. Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo, successor to Simon Rattle in Birmingham, has helped the good fight with even another CD dedicated to Foulds.

Foulds, a composer largely self-taught, nevertheless had a tremendous amount of professional practical music-making behind him. He played cello in the Hallé Orchestra in his twenties and was in great demand as a piano accompanist. He began making a reputation as a producer of high-quality bon-bons. During his lifetime, people regarded him primarily as a light composer and a writer of incidental music, most notably for productions with Lewis Casson and Sybil Thorndyke. He provided the music for the first run of Shaw's Saint Joan. His idiom begins, like that of Frank Bridge, in a kind of British Impressionism -- Delius, early Bridge, John Ireland, Granville Bantock, and so on. The failure of his major work World Requiem to establish a place in the repertory drove Foulds to Paris in the Twenties, which artistically was likely one of the best things that could have happened to him. In that lively swirl of music, he began to show a quirky turn of musical mind. Like Holst, he became interested in ideas and cultures not normally shared by other musicians. In 1935, he moved again, this time to India, where he became Director of European Music for All-India Radio, the BBC of the Raj. His music became increasingly influenced by a melding of European and Indian culture, and he even wrote pieces using traditional Indian instruments. He died, still young, of cholera within days of arriving in Calcutta in 1939.

The CD presents Foulds's music from all his periods, including perhaps his best-known work, Dynamic Triptych, a piano concerto. This was the first piece by Foulds I ever heard, made available on a pioneering Lyrita recording. It was on the flip side of the Vaughan Williams piano concerto, just so you know what I bought the album for. I considered the Foulds a nice bonus, but not exactly a world-beater. Repeated listening over the years improved it for me, however, and this recording, with the amazing Peter Donohoe, beats out Howard Shelley's (no slouch, by the way) by a significant bit. The work falls into three movements: "Dynamic Mode," "Dynamic Timbre," and "Dynamic Rhythm." Why "dynamic," I don't know, but it makes no difference. Unique in the quality of its musical imagination, it also shows a tremendous focus from the composer. The first movement obsesses a mode I believe Foulds invented -- D E# F# G A B# C# D'. There may not be a note in the eight-minute movement outside those seven. Notice that the scale contains both the major and the minor third, which means that the music inhabits a fluid space between major and minor. The difficulty with most modal writing is that you don't really change key and this kind of stasis can wear out the ear after a while. Nevertheless, Foulds discovers ways to create the illusion of change -- a brilliant piece all on its own. The second movement plays with instrumental color, sometimes with the standard procedures of orchestration, sometimes through quarter-tone tuning -- that is, strings, usually, playing pitches "between" the black and white keys of a piano. This already has plenty of interest, but Foulds throws in a gloriously lush tune -- one that has features of Rachmaninoff at his best -- for the piano. The movement unfolds largely as the contrast and the collaboration between the tune and its setting. The finale, a toccata, relentlessly drums an odd rhythm -- 2+3+4 -- fast, slow, and fast again. Like certain works of Holst, Foulds's Dynamic Triptych is a one-off, a singular monument of British music. Foulds himself never produced anything else like it.

The little tone-poem April -- England, written the previous year, lies a world away from the determined Modernism of the Triptych. We shouldn't forget the role of the parlor-piece in the Victorian, Edwardian, and Georgian eras. Composers made a good living from them, and great composers -- like Brahms, Dvorák, Grieg, and Elgar -- didn't shun the genre. Although written in the Twenties, April hearkens back to the early 1900s. It opens with a "merrie England" theme that could have come from Sullivan, German, Coates, or even Grainger. It's essentially a triptych (Foulds seems to have had an attraction to three-part form): a bright, bouncy opening; a long quasi-chaconne, and a brief return to the opening. Despite the humbleness of the genre, this is a parlor-piece of real genius, luminously scored. The opening theme is yet another great tune, something that, once you hear it, you really need to whistle. However, it really ices the cake. The substance of the piece belongs to the central section, a bass repeated, sometimes with variations, as a ground, over which the most amazing counterpoint traces filigree. The music runs from serenity to riot, and the composer intended the section to show the vital abundance of Spring. You almost see tendrils pushing and proliferating.

On the other hand, neither the "Keltic Lament" (second movement of the Keltic Suite) nor the Music-Pictures Group III rise much above the usual product. The "Keltic Lament," Foulds's most popular work during his lifetime, is pleasant enough, but, given the beauty and abundance of Irish and Scottish folk melody, it was a bit late in the day to be writing the orchestral equivalent of "I'll be Home with You, Mother, When the Shamrocks Bloom Again." The Music-Pictures comprise four movements inspired by four paintings, with Blake's "The Ancient of Days" the best known. Unfortunately, the corresponding movement, the weakest, fails to capture the pulsing energy of the picture. As a whole, the suite lies closer to the level of Coates and Ketèlbey rather than to something like Elgar's magical Wand of Youth.

The Song of Ram Dass comes from the beginning of Foulds's Indian period. It's another miniature that sounds like a study for something larger. Its main achievement lies in its avoidance of the pseudo-orientalism of someone like Bantock. It would interest me very much to hear something built on it, the synthesis of two classical traditions -- one East, one West -- in a larger work.

The performances are marvelous, the recording a bit bright for my taste, but nothing I can't live with. There's a companion volume on Warner Classics 61525, including Foulds's 3 Mantras, just as good. Oramo doesn't take Foulds as a footnote to English music, but as damned interesting main event. It shows.

S.G.S. (June 2007)