Over the last four decades Lukas Foss has morphed from a musical enfant terrible to a highly respected 21st century composer, conductor, pianist and educator-scholar. Born in Berlin in 1922, Foss settled in the U.S. in 1937, studying piano, composition and conducting at the Curtis Institute.
The Foss selections on this CD range from the old testament utterances of an angry wrathful God to the wayward People of Israel in Songs of Anguish, to the plaintive innocence and contrasting brutality in the Elegy for Anne Frank as well as Foss’ contemporary rhythmic percussion transcriptions of two ancient Hebrew manuscript musical prayer fragments, Lammdeni and his otherworldly adaptation of the ubiquitous devotional Adon Olam.
Songs of Anguish is a biblical cantata for baritone and orchestra, based upon the composer’s selection of verses from Isaiah. It is in a single movement depicting Isaiah’s castigation of the corruption and decadence into which the Nation of Israel had fallen. The work is declamatory, similar in tone to Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Like the Walton, the baritone intones the fall of the Jewish people, singing the Isaiah verses amidst an often seething orchestral background. The effect is theatrical and absorbing. The performance by James Maddalena, baritone with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorhester, Berlin, conducted by Gerard Schwarz is masterly and very well recorded.
The Elegy for Anne Frank is overly programmatic. The innocence of the music depicting Anne is in stark contrast to the menace created by the orchestra emulating the goose-stepping Nazi troops. Anne Frank has become iconic for the horror that was the Holocaust. As such, she is entitled to a more subtle and broader symbolic representation than Foss has provided her.
Adon Olam, the liturgical poem, used frequently as a concluding hymn following the Sabbath and evening services, was adapted by Foss, on invitation from the Park Ave. Synagogue in New York City in 1947. Here Foss rejects the often pompous character of traditional style found in early 20th century hymnals.His adaptation of this popular hymn is ethereal, mirroring the eloquence of the words. It is sung with great clarity and beauty by the UK chamber choir, Laudibus, under its musical director, Michael Brewer.
Lammdeni was composed by Foss in the 1970s as transcriptions of two ancient Hebrew musical chant fragments for mixed chorus and a conductor’s selection of percussion instruments.The chants are subjected to a series of imaginative entrances and rhythmic instrumental background. Each performance is individualized according to the chance, jazz-like nature of Foss’s composition. Performance and recording are authoritative.
The Heavenly Feast by Robert Beaser is a solo soprano-orchestral piece described by the composer as “essentially an interior monologue at the grave site of Simone Weil,” the French philosopher who died in 1943 of self starvation. Beaser uses the poetry of Gjertrud Schnackenburg, whose 1982 poem, “The Heavenly Feast,” addresses Weill’s grave site with her suicidal refusal to accept any nourishment, so that her food could instead be provided to those war-starving in need.
Beaser’s music is reminiscent of Samuel Barber in its loneliness and plaintive, melodic nature. Schnackenburg’s poetry is orchestrated as wind solos representing the birdsong which symbolizes Weill’s focus and her ultimate heavenly ascension.The effect is a striking fusion of literary and musical poetic images, resulting in a powerful evocation of the meaning of sacrifice in a world contorted by widespread suffering and brutality.
— Ronald Legum