Concerto Grosso for String Quartet and String Orchestra.
Discover the Wild
JoAnn Falletta, cond;
Michael Ludwig (vn);
Paul Silverthorne (va);
Carmine Lauri (vn);
David Alberman (vn);
Timothy Hugh (vc);
Members of the London SO;
NAXOS 8.559723 (57:39)
String Quartet No. 5,
Christopher O’Riley (pn);
Delray String Qrt;
NAXOS 8.559733 (57:24)
String Quartets: No. 2,
“Where have you been?”;
“Whispers of Heavenly Death”;
The American Str Qrt
ALBANY 480 (54:27)
The London Symphony Orchestra CD of Kenneth Fuchs’s music is very comfortable—“comfortable” in the sense that these are all well-known musicians we’ve met on numerous previous occasions in these pages, and “comfortable” in the sense that we’ve encountered Fuchs’s music before and have found it to be easily approachable and to have both immediate and lasting appeal.
, the composer tells us, was inspired by the great ocean liners of the 20th century and by his many boyhood visits to the piers of New York Harbor. Would you glean this from listening to the piece? Would you suddenly envision yourself, without knowing why, aboard a luxury cruise ship sailing to some exotic port of call? Once the power of suggestion plants the idea in your mind, perhaps you would. But if Fuchs hadn’t told us what he’d set out to portray in this score, it’s doubtful that a nautical theme would leap to mind. The piece is an expansive, 13-minute tone poem that, to my ear, instantly suggests the wide-open landscapes, endless vistas, and vanishing horizons of America’s heartland and prairies that are very far from any ocean. Whatever its inspiration or what Fuchs intended it to depict,
is a score very much in the Americana style of Copland and William Schuman at their very best. It may be just a bit cinematic, but it’s a gloriously beautiful piece.
Fuchs describes his
as “a lyrical concerto for violin and orchestra,” though it’s formally designated a “Romance” for violin and orchestra. Why, I’m not quite sure, but the piece put me in mind of Vaughan Williams’s
The Lark Ascending
. The solo violin part, exquisitely played by Michael Ludwig, flutters, takes wing, and soars on high, as it circles and glides on gentle updrafts and air currents from the orchestra below. Fuchs’s score is more varied and not as static as Vaughan Williams’s piece, offering more animated and texturally contrasting sections, including a vigorously virtuosic cadenza for the soloist beginning just before the four-minute mark.
Fuchs has given a fairly detailed description in the above interview of his Viola Concerto, titled
. There’s not much to add, other than to say that Paul Silverstone, for whom Fuchs composed the concerto, plays magnificently, and that all violists should be grateful for the addition to their literature of such a handsome and deeply moving original work.
One of the marks of a great composer is the ability to imprint his works with a uniquely identifiable profile or personality, while still managing to make each piece he writes sound new and different from all the others. Fuchs’s Concerto Grosso for String Quartet and String Orchestra is an example. It has Fuchs’s unmistakable fingerprints all over it, yet it has a distinctive style and sound all its own. It’s not exactly what I’d call neobaroque, but some of the sonorities Fuchs achieves in the energetic, motoric rhythm passages reminded me a bit of somewhat similar moments in Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 and even in Martinů’s
for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani. I think it has to do with the way Fuchs pits his concertino group (the string quartet) against the ripieno (the string orchestra). I wouldn’t want to carry the analogy too far, though, for, as stated above, Fuchs’s personal stamp is as much on this work, and recognizable, as it is on everything he writes.
Discover the Wild
is a short A-B-A orchestral overture that could beautifully serve as a concert program opener. It’s A section is a brassy, festive explosion of color; its B section quiet and lyrical; and it ends with a return to the A section material.
JoAnn Falletta leads the LSO players with her usual skill and flair.
All three works on the second disc are here receiving their world premiere recordings. In the above interview, Fuchs explains the compositional techniques he uses in these pieces, each of which is based on elements from
, an extended scena for baritone, voice, and orchestra composed in 2008–2010.
To expand a bit on his description,
are mirror images of each other. Both are made up of seven sections based on the same sequence of intervals, but canonically (in
) and variations-wise (in
) proceeding in contrary motion.
is in seven movements for solo piano, and begins with a canon at the unison, starting on the note B. The second canon, at the second, begins a note lower on A; the third canon, at the third, starts on G, a note below the second canon, and so on.
in one movement for violin, cello, and piano is based on the same interval progression, and also begins on the note B. But this time its sections are variations rather than canons, and they proceed in ascending direction with Variation 1 on C, Variation 2 on D, and so on. The solo piano
is perhaps the most modern-sounding of three works on the disc. It has a strange, otherworldly, distant beauty to it, but one that feels cold and remote. Parts of it are reminiscent of the approach Copland adopted for his 1930
. I have to assume that pianist Christopher O’Riley meets all of the technical challenges of the piece and performs it to Fuchs’s complete satisfaction.
, though of similar style and largely made up of similar material, is immediately warmer due to the presence of the two string instruments and, for me, at least, an easier and more rewarding listening experience. In fact, I find the trio a melodically rich and emotionally expressive work. An extended passage beginning at 10:15, with its sustained violin and cello lines above sweeping arpeggios in the piano is something that might have been written by Fauré. Trio21—Kinga Augustyn, violin; Robert deMaine, cello; and Jeffrey Biegel, piano—bring out all of the score’s romantic ardor, as well as its strong rhythmic profile.
Of Fuchs’s “American” String Quartet, I think I can honestly say that the opening movement may be one of the most drop-dead gorgeous things I’ve ever heard, and that I can’t think of another composer since Shostakovich who has drawn such sonorities from a string quartet. This is a masterpiece and, in my opinion, makes Fuchs the greatest living American composer. The work was written for the Delray String Quartet whose members—Mei Mei Luo and Tomas Cotik, violins; Richard Fleischman, viola; and Claudio Jaffé, cello—play it magnificently on this disc.
Recorded in 2000, the Albany CD is, as noted above, the oldest of the lot, having been in circulation for over a dozen years. Fuchs’s String Quartet No. 2 is a kind of “pictures at an exhibition,” if you will, taking its inspiration from collages by American abstract expressionist, Robert Motherwell (1915-1991). He was a member of the so-called New York School, which included Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, among others. Each of the five movements of the quartet takes the title of one of Motherwell’s collages:
Heart of Darkness, The Other Side, The Marriage, They Are Not Heard at All
Where Have You Been?
Photos of the five collages are reproduced in the booklet, and all that can be said of them is that there is no way to attribute any meaning to their titles. They all look like Rorschach test images, any one of which could be blobs of peanut butter on shards of broken crackers. If I questioned the ability of music to depict an ocean liner in Fuchs’s
, I’m less inclined to question music’s ability to depict images of a wholly non-representational, abstract nature, for music is itself a non-representational, abstract art form. Both viewer and listener, not to mention composer, are free to see, hear, and read into such images and sounds whatever thoughts and feelings they trigger in the mind’s inner eye and ear.
Thus, it’s not surprising that Fuchs’s response to Motherwell’s paintings elicited music of a very modernist style. The String Quartet No. 2, composed in 1993 is marked by all manner of now familiar techniques—elastic glissandos, eerie harmonics, rasping
bowings, percussive pizzicato, and anxious tremolos. Still, I’m hesitant to brand the score with the label avant-garde, which, for me, carries negative connotations; for every time I was about to throw in the towel and call this one a lost cause, Fuchs proves once again that he’s not able to long suppress his better musical instincts, and out pops a passage that sounds like it could have come from one of Janáček’s quartets.
Where abstract painting served Fuchs for his Second String Quartet, it’s now the poetry of Walt Whitman that inspires the String Quartet No. 3, its title, “Whispers of Heavenly Death,” taken from an eponymously named Whitman poem. Here we’re dealing with something that’s not entirely abstract—words do have meaning—but not physically concrete, like an ocean liner, either. It’s a bit easier to judge how the composer translates his responses to the words of the poems into music because we can know what the words mean. Unlike Motherwell’s abstract collages, Whitman’s poems can’t mean whatever we want them to, though they can certainly have levels of meaning and evoke a variety of emotions.
The poems to which Fuchs makes reference, in addition to the title poem, are: Darkest Thou Now O Soul; Of Him I Love Day and Night; Quicksand Years; That Music Always Round Me; O Living Always, Always Dying; The Last Invocation; and Pensive and Faltering. For the most part, these poems dwell on the mystery of death, both physical and spiritual. Fuchs doesn’t make a movement of each of the poems, but rather distills and combines their essences into three movements which express a wide range of emotional responses, from fear, anxiety, and anger, to resignation and acceptance.
Only one member of the American String Quartet, cellist David Gerber, is no longer with the ensemble since this recording was made; he retired in 2002. His chair is currently occupied by Wolfram Koessel. Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney, violins; and Daniel Avshalomov are still with the group.
Kenneth Fuchs’s contributions, especially in the genres of orchestral and chamber music, are considerable and significant. The three CDs reviewed here represent but a small sampling of his work, but any one of them, or all three, are likely to whet your appetite for more. Performances and recordings couldn’t be better. Recommended, recommended, and recommended.