must confess straightaway that on my first listening to this
CD I was unimpressed. I felt that the works lacked direction.
They did not seem to have the depth of feeling to warrant
the sleeve-notes’ comparison to Mahler and Bruckner. In particular
the Festive Overture and the My Youth hardly
warranted a ‘world premiere’ recording.
something niggled me – I felt that somehow I was not doing
justice to poor old Foerster. I decided to give him a second
(and eventually a third) chance. So after a week I put the
CD into the player and tried again.
course Foerster is hardly a big name in the United Kingdom.
Apart from the present Symphony I would be hard pressed to
recall having heard anything from his pen. A brief perusal
of the Arkiv CD catalogue reveals a number of works – but
these are mostly small-scale pieces with the exception of
the present works. So there is not much to go on. However
there is an opera called Eva available on Naxos; I
have never heard this and therefore will not comment on it.
Overture Op. 70 was composed for the opening of a new
theatre in Prague in 1907. All the emotions of the ‘boards’ are
here – we have heroic music, romantic strains and even
images of Viennese waltzing. In fact this is really a microcosm
of what the audience may have been expecting to see on
the stage at the new theatre. It may not be the greatest
example of the genre of ‘overture’ but the orchestration,
the tunefulness and sheer variety make it an attractive
work. So I was wrong on my initial impression here.
symphonic poem Meine Jugend was written at the time
when Foerster was living in Vienna with Gustav Mahler. It
is quite definitely a reflection on ‘youth’ from the pen
of a man in his late forties. No date is given as to when
this work was composed but I guess it was before 1907. There
is great depth here – it is not all ‘happy and carefree’.
Foerster was a deeply religious man and the consolation of
faith is certainly evident in a number of passages – there
are numerous reflective and meditative moments. There is
a tragic moment when the orchestra makes a ‘dissonant outcry’.
This is supposed to represents the composer’s feelings about
the sudden death of his mother. Yet there is much
joy and gaiety – the opening pages are full of youthful confidence
and there is certainly a degree of romance in these pages.
The work ends with a short coda after an optimistic statement
of the ‘reflective’ material. It has been noted that some
of the themes look forward to Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier – and
this would not be an exaggeration.
here was the second work on which my first thoughts were
wrong. Once again it will never gain the cachet of a Strauss
tone poem but it deserves a place in the repertoire of all
orchestras that specialise in Czech music.
I do know the Symphony No. 4 in C minor Easter
Eve. In fact I have a copy of the old Supraphon CD .
However I have never really managed to come to terms with
the piece. The problem has to do with the title. This may
seem strange but I struggle with music that has religious
titles. This does not mean that I do not appreciate masses
and oratorios and anthems – I do! But what I struggle with
is ‘concert hall symphonic’ orchestral music that has a ‘religious
title’. Actually. if I am honest. I think it goes back to
a certain dislike of programme music in general. For example
if I listen to Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony,
I always put thoughts and images of mountains well and truly
out of my mind. I have never managed this trick with Vaughan
William’s Antarctic Symphony; not surprisingly it
is the one RVW work that I least enjoy. The same applies
to much of Messiaen’s music. If I can evacuate the ‘religious’ element,
I can enjoy the music. So my approach to this Symphony is
to do just that. Yet I realise that I am open to the criticism
that I have denied the inspiration and raison d’être of the
look at the Symphony for a moment. The consensus of musical
critics would appear to be that this is Foerster’s masterpiece.
Furthermore it was written in Vienna when the composer was ‘under
the spell of Mahler and Bruckner’. And there is no doubt
about the composer’s faith in Christianity – he was a devout
Roman Catholic. But the bit I disagree with is that this
work somehow becomes ‘a direct expression of his deep religious
feeling’. For example in the attractive second movement it
is the Dvořákian air that predominates. It is a pastoral
movement that recalls happy days in the countryside. We hear
ländler-like themes and the song of the birds never seems
to be far away. Definitely more ‘Easter bunnies’ than the ‘watch-night’ of
the Resurrection! Yet this is not to complain – it just points
up my impression of this work as being optimistic; of portraying
a composer who displays the emotions of contentment and repose
rather than turmoil and distress. There is nothing, to my
ear, that reflects the great cosmological drama that Christians
truly believe was fought on the Cross at Calvary and revealed
itself to Mary Magdalene and the disciples on Easter Day.
True, there is intensity and pain and even struggle – but
it does not seem to me to reflect the Christian iconography
in spite of the use of the plainsong chant ‘On the Third
Day our Creator Rose’. Only in the peroration do we perhaps
come close to ascribing a religious association.
I were to give this Symphony a title I would remove the reference
to the greatest of Christian Festivals and simply call it Spring
Symphony. This would well reflect the freshness of the
music and its sense of well-being. And of course ‘spring’ is
definitely a time of rebirth and renewal – the dark days
of winter are past and the world is filled with a sense of
wonder and newness. But the bottom line is that this Symphony
is more about the discovery of Dvořák’s ‘New World’ than ‘Christus
in all this has been a difficult CD to review. I have had
to listen to it three times. And this is more than most reviewers
would normally credit to a new or unheard work. However I
feel that the effort has been worth it. I can recommend this
music to all listeners who enjoy ‘late-romantic’ music – all
those who love the works of Mahler and Dvořák and Bruckner
will relate to much in these three works.
see also review by Jonathan Woolf