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Josef Bohuslav Foerster (1859-1951)
Festive Overture. Op. 70 (1907) [09:26]
Meine Jugend (My Youth) Symphonic Poem, Op.44 (c.1905) [15:50]
Symphony No.4 Easter Eve Op.54 (c.1904) [47:08]
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Lance Friedel
rec. Slovak Radio (Bratislava), 8-15 September 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557776 [72:33]

I 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.
Yet 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.
Of 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.
The Festive 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.
The 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.
So 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.
Now I do know the Symphony No. 4 in C minor Easter Eve. In fact I have a copy of the old Supraphon CD [111822]. 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 work.
Let’s 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.
If 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 Resurrexit.’
All 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.
John France

see also review by Jonathan Woolf


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