FUCHS: Atlantic Riband. American Rhapsody (Romance for Violin & Orchestra). Divinum Mysterium (Concerto for Viola & Orchestra). Concerto Grosso. Discover the Wild.
Michael Ludwig (violin); Paul Silverthorne (viola); London Symphony Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta.
NAXOS 8.559723 TT: 57:39.

Redux. Kenneth Fuchs (pronounced fooks) studied with, among others, Milton Babbitt, David Diamond, and Vincent Persichetti. To some extent, all three left their mark -- Diamond and Persichetti in the orchestral sound, Babbitt in a predilection for constructing scores from particular intervals. Like some in his generation, Fuchs (born in 1956) eschewed the postwar trends and went back to the American composers between the wars, like Piston and Copland, for inspiration. The music often has a "big-shoulder," open-air quality to it, evoking epic Romantic vistas.

All of the works on this disc at least sound gorgeous. I may care for some more than others, but I can't call any of them shoddy or routine. I'll deal with the piece that affected me less, first.

American Rhapsody uses an 11th chord, introduced by the solo violin in arpeggio, and proceeds to wander up and down the chord. The whole work lies uncomfortably close to Vaughan Williams's Lark Ascending, and the comparison shows why the Fuchs is little more than a nice bit and the Vaughan Williams a masterpiece. Fuchs establishes a norm, and little else. Vaughan Williams leads us to surprising places along pentatonic routes.

I'd feel like a grinch if I dissed Discover the Wild, an overture to the great outdoors. Some may dismiss it as "movie music," and I can see their point. But I happen to like movie music, especially those scores for iconic Westerns like The Outriders, The Magnificent Seven, and The Big Country (by André Previn, Elmer Bernstein, and Jerome Moross, respectively), ultimately derived from Copland's Rodeo. All those works just fill you up and make you yearn for big sky -- even me, who normally hates going anywhere I can't plug in a stereo. Besides, Fuchs has composed an elegant four minutes from the seed of a rising fifth, perfect for some glorious brass writing.

Fuchs retooled a string quartet into his Concerto Grosso, for string quartet and string orchestra. Such a combo immediately calls Vivaldi to mind, and although Fuchs doesn't make any attempt to imitate Vivaldi, the procedures of baroque practice underlie the piece. Fuchs has fashioned the work out of a small set of ideas: a string tremolo "shimmer," a chorale, and lyrical ideas based on the drop of an octave and a more-or-less scalar rise, as well as on the worrying of seconds. The work falls into three major sections: a "get-acquainted"; extended singing; an energetic conclusion, which brings back earlier ideas. Fuchs shows wonderful craft, particularly in the interaction between the solo quartet and the string mass.

The overture Atlantic Riband sends a love letter to the glory days of American transatlantic ship travel. Fuchs remembers, as I do I, the tail end of that era, especially the New York City docks at which the great liners berthed. Some of the most thrilling memories of my boyhood involve seeing off relatives traveling to Europe, often in gray, misty weather, on large ships like the S. S. United States. The music begins in cold fog and eventually opens out into expansive declaration, suggesting the spaces of the ocean ahead. Again, it's one of those pieces that Fuchs has constructed from a few intervals and chords -- a use of minimal means to produce a maximal score.

To me, the one-movement viola concerto Divinum Mysterium is the big work on the program, and not just because of length. It shares many ideas with American Rhapsody, including the soloist arpeggiating on, this time, a ninth chord. However, the medieval Sanctus trope, known as the Divinum Mysterium, serves as its main building block. More may know it as the Christmas hymn "Of the Father's Love Begotten." Fuchs takes the tune for a walk through quiet gardens and barn dances, with occasional hints of the carol "The First Nowell" as well. The rhythmic sections get your blood moving, while the meditative ones retain point and intensity. The finale joins the long-limbed melodies with the rhythmic percolation. Fuchs tries for spiritual exaltation and without a lot of fuss brings it off.

Falletta's readings match the music. They let you know how good each score may be. American Rhapsody's anemia leaves soloist Michael Ludwig little to do. He might as well be a hand model or a magician's assistant. The Concerto Grosso benefits by sharply rhythmic trade-offs between the orchestra and the string quartet, consisting of the LSO's first chairs. However, Divinum Mysterium gets a stellar account, aided largely by Paul Silverthorne, LSO principal viola and the score's dedicatee. I've raved before about Silverthorne, who may be my all-time favorite violist. He has all the virtues I associate with intelligent, musically sensitive playing: an imaginative shaping of line, acute rhythm, awareness of his ideal place in an ensemble. Beyond this, however, he also has the ability to penetrate to the emotional core of whatever music he plays. In this case, he projects a mystical intensity. His isn't a one-size-fits-all approach, and he plays a wide range of music. His Brahms differs from his Lutyens which differs from his Shostakovich. He aims to speak in the composer's voice, and to this end, he wants to understand the music's architecture, as well as its rhetorical shape. I have no idea whether Fuchs's concerto will last. Much depends on its adoption by violists. However, Silverthorne's account recommends this work to others -- listeners, conductors, and players alike.

S.G.S. (June 2013)