Classical CD Reviews
KENNETH FUCHS: Atlantic Riband; American Rhapsody; Divinum Mysterium; Concerto Grosso; Discover the Wild – Soloists/London Sym./ JoAnn Falletta – Naxos “Through the Reeds: Woodwind Concerti” = WALTER ROSS: Concerto for Flute and Guitar; Oboe d’Amore Concerto; Concerto for Bassoon and Strings; Concerto for Oboe, Harp, and Strings – Soloists/ Slovak Radio Sym. Orch. – Ravello
Published on December 6, 2012
KENNETH FUCHS: Atlantic Riband (for orchestra); American Rhapsody (Romance for violin and orchestra); Divinum Mysterium (Concerto for viola and orch.); Concerto Grosso (for string quartet and orch.); Discover the Wild (Overture for Orchestra) – Michael Ludwig, violin/ Paul Silverthorne, viola/ Carmine Lauri and David Alberman, violins/ Paul Silverthorne viola/ Timothy Hugh, cello (Concerto Grosso)/ London Sym. Orch./ JoAnn Falletta – Naxos 8.559723, 57:39 ***:
“Through the Reeds: Woodwind Concerti” = WALTER ROSS: Concerto for Flute and Guitar; Oboe d’Amore Concerto; Concerto for Bassoon and String Orchestra; Concerto for Oboe, Harp, and String Orchestra – Michael Sintal, oboe d’amore/ Ramon Mesina, bassoon/ M. Turner, flute/ Radka Kubrova, guitar/ Igor Fabera, oboe/ Adriana Antalová, harp/ Slovak Radio Sym. Orch. – Ravello RR7854, 70:00 [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:
Critics are sometimes an ornery, contrarian bunch, and so I try to read between the lines even when I’m perusing critics I generally agree with. I note that Kenneth Fuchs has both audience appeal and critical support, and why not? His is unfailingly melodious, upbeat diatonic music that American composers, with the exception of diehards like Bernstein, would have been loathe to put their name to in the late 50s, 60s, and 70s, before minimalism and neo-Romanticism started to hold up the mirror to the emperor-with-no-clothes known as post-Webernian serialism. Even the greats of the first half of the twentieth century had a go at it, with Stravinsky skillfully avoiding sounding like Stravinsky and Copland so effectively negating his musical persona that he finally decided he had nothing more to say, and fell silent. Somewhere along the line, composers started to realize that for good reason listeners were staying away in droves from the likes of Babbitt, Druckman, Xenakis, and Nono—hence the return of diatonicism.
It’s often unwise to pigeonhole artists, but I suppose Fuchs could be classified as a neo-Romantic, along with composers such as Rochberg, del Tredici, and Rouse, especially since these composers are so different in style as to suggest the breadth of neo-Romantic expression. David del Tredici obviously has a good sense of humor: just listen to his Final Alice or Paul Revere’s Ride. Christopher Rouse, on the other hand, is a much more serious guy, a Romantic in the vein of the very serious Max Reger (though much more likeable and interesting, as far as I’m concerned). But all of the aforementioned neo-Romantics are more emotionally involving than what I hear from Kenneth Fuchs on the current recording. Much of the music strikes a big-shouldered, echt-American pose in the manner of Copland, but if so, it’s Copland leavened with more than a touch of John Williams. This is not to denigrate Fuchs’s real skill as an orchestrator and melodist. But it’s also to say that for most serious-minded listeners, Fuchs probably won’t engage on a deeply emotional level.
Fuchs also tends to sound very old-fashioned to these ears. Maybe I’m daft, but his sound world really is not so far removed from movie soundtracks of the 80s. In fact, while I’m not a fan of soundtrack albums, for the most part I’d just as soon listen to the finer ones by Williams as to listen to an hour of Fuchs. However, there is definitely a bit more meat to Divinum Mysterium than to the other works on the program, and this may be worth the price of admission for those who want to hear what Fuchs is all about. The piece gives the violist a chance for virtuosic display, as well as for making some very pretty sounds, while thematically and architecturally, it’s satisfying. Bravo to Paul Silverthorne and to JoAnn Falletta and her orchestra. They certainly give as fine advocacy to this music as a composer has a right to expect. Excellent sound, too, from the Naxos engineers working at Abbey Road Studios. As I said at the beginning of this review, critics aren’t infallibly righteous, and you may enjoy Fuchs’s music more than I do. At any rate, Divinum Mysterium is worth a listen, and the other pieces may be just right for when you want to unwind with lighter fare by a contemporary composer.
OK, since I’ve already gone out on a limb, I may as well go farther and say that I prefer the four concertos by Walter Ross on the Ravello disc. Maybe it’s because I recognize the influence of Ross’s teacher Alberto Ginastera, one of my favorite late-twentieth-century composers. The influence shows up in the orchestration, which in the Flute and Guitar Concerto features instruments of a decidedly south-of-the-border provenance, as well as in the lively folk-influenced rhythms. Also, in place of Fuchs’s unabashed diatonicism, Ross employs a piquant pandiatonicism, as well as excursions into modality. This gives his works a good deal of fluidity, as his melodies go off on unexpected tangents.
Obviously, the scoring for a reduced orchestra doesn’t allow Ross to strut his stuff as a colorist, but the reduced forces seem just right for the solo instruments involved. The modal melodies and canonic string writing are the perfect backdrop for the very Baroque oboe d’amore. Again, the rhythms in faster passages are jaunty, balletic, while the second movement is a slow dance that reminds me of Samuel Barber in his more nostalgic vein. There’s a little more humor in the Bassoon Concerto, which draws on the comic possibilities of this throaty instrument; at one point in the first movement, the bassoon dances an odd little pas de deux with the first violin.
The Concerto for Oboe, Harp, and Strings is the most rarefied work on the program, the first movement a kind of saintly Lento carezzando (“Slow and caressingly”). And while the second movement is marked Festivo and has a driven—though not, to my way of thinking, an especially festive—air about it, the last movement returns, at least initially, to the quietude of the first movement. The marking indicates its emotional character: Adagio patetica and Impetuoso. It’s not pathetic and impetuous at once, though it is so by turns. This seems to me the most eventful and successful work on the program.
The work of the soloists is first-rate throughout, and while the orchestral playing and recording aren’t quite as suave as those on the Naxos disc, they are very acceptable. Certainly, there’s no lack of spirit or commitment in the playing or conducting. If you like concerti for diverse instruments in the Baroque manner and want to hear what a twenty-first-century composer can do in this venerable genre, by all means give Walter Ross a hearing.