Kenneth FUCHS (b. 1956)
Piano Concerto Spiritualist (after three paintings by Helen Frankenthaler) (2016) [21:37]
Poems of Life (12 Poems by Judith G. Wolf for counter-tenor, cello, cor anglais and orchestra) (2017) [17:51]
Glacier (Concerto for electric guitar and orchestra) (2015) [22:07]
Rush (Concerto for E-flat alto saxophone and orchestra) (2012) [14:56]
Jeffrey Biegel (piano)
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (counter-tenor)
Tim Hugh (cello)
Timothy McAllister (alto saxophone)
D.J. Sparr (electric guitar)
Christine Pendrill (cor anglais)
London Symphony Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. 2017, Abbey Road Studio 1, London
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559824 [76:31]
American composer Kenneth Fuchs is professor of music composition at Connecticut University. He holds a doctorate of musical arts from Juilliard where his teachers included Milton Babbitt, David Diamond and Vincent Persichetti.
Although there is some danger in having all your eggs in one basket it is quite an accolade for any composer to have five CDs of his music in the Naxos catalogue. That's the case with Fuchs. Now along comes this sixth disc, conducted again by JoAnn Falletta, who presided over the ones that came out in 2005, 2008 and 2014 (8.559723). Another Naxos CD - the one from 2013 - is of the chamber music. The fourth CD - from 2014 - is 8.559753 (not reviewed here, as yet). It is of Fuchs' vocal music and showcases settings of words by Don DeLillo, John Updike and William Blake. Incidentally, his string quartets 2, 3 and 4 are on Albany TROY480.
The present disc launches confidently with Fuchs' Piano Concerto (Spiritualist). This three-movement work was premièred on 20 May 2016 at Wheeling, West Virginia by the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra/André Raphel with Jeffrey Biegel as piano soloist, a role Biegel also undertook on the chamber music disc. There was, in fact, an earlier outing for the Concerto at Springfield, Massachusetts by the Springfield Symphony Orchestra and Kevin Rhodes on 12 March 2016. Both the Wheeling and the Springfield orchestras were the commissioners for this piece. The Concerto has also gained a hearing from Biegel and the Spartanburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sarah Ioannides on 15 October 2016 in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
What a blithe spirited work is Fuchs' Piano Concerto. The first movement bears the same name as the work as a whole. It breathes joy and does so slowly. This is alternated with passages of intoxicating and breathless zest. Bringing an "innocent ear" to the listening room, I found the music freewheelingly enjoyable. I came to this conclusion knowing that all three movements, each of which bears the name of one of Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings (Spiritualist, Silent Wish, Natural Answer), were inspired by Frankenthaler’s visual images.
Crudely, and that's all I can manage, the idiom is like a gentle mix of lambent Ravel and 1940s pastoral Copland. The second movement is a sort of self-hypnotic Gymnopédie but every now and then the composer throws in a stone and the ripples produce wild and whooping results. Natural Answer marks a return to the foot-tapping exuberance of the first movement. The superb recording facilitates an equally superb work. Apart from the intrinsic joys of this sensationally attractive music the disc has also introduced me to this painter and her work. Strange how music has, for me, often been the key to appreciation and knowledge of the other arts; poetry, novels and paintings/illustrations.
Fuchs' concerto output includes, apart from two works on this CD, three other pieces: Concerto Grosso (for String Quartet and String Orchestra) (2009), Canticle to the Sun (Horn Concerto) (2005) written for Timothy Jones and Divinum Mysterium (Concerto for Viola and Orchestra) written for Paul Silverthorne (Naxos 8.559723). Jones and Silverthorne are Principals with the LSO, the orchestra which has been central to the Naxos Fuchs series.
Poems of Life is an unusually scored song-cycle for counter-tenor, cello, cor anglais and orchestra. It had its première with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (counter-tenor) and Michael Daniels (cello). That was on 7 April 2017 at the Ferguson Center (Newport News) and then in (Norfolk) and (Virginia Beach). Cohen is also the solo voice in this recording.
Counter-intuitively, these twelve poems by Judith G. Wolf are arranged and sequenced in five movements. The weave of voice, cello and cor anglais is nicely calculated in a work that speaks in the sort of idiom that would have appealed to Samuel Barber, Geoffrey Bush and Carey Blyton. The plotline of the poems deals with vulnerability and loss in an affecting way. The songs follow each other in a continuum. Interesting that JoAnn Falletta introduced Fuchs to Wolf and that this work arises from a commission from the poet. The words are given in full in the leaflet - a good move, although there is no obstacle to understanding in the way that Cohen shapes the words as he sings them.
The composer tells us that each movement of Glacier (his Electric Guitar Concerto) "is based on my aural conception of the natural elements in Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park." The music is once again quietly shaped and appealingly paced. Across the five movements Fuchs keeps faith with the guitar's plangent role. Going to the Sun, the last movement, is not the rip-roaring tempest you might have expected. Instead we get a Tranquillo "a musical ode to the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road in northwest Montana". The music ends, as Prospero might have wished, "rounded with a sleep".
Glacier had its first performance at Bozeman, Montana with the Bozeman Symphony conducted by Matthew Savery and Douglas Maher (electric guitar) on 7–8 March 2015. It has had at least two further airings, by D. J. Sparr (electric guitar) with the Space Coast Symphony Orchestra conducted by Aaron Collins on 25 and 26 February 2017 in Florida at Melbourne and Vero Beach.
The electric guitar is a fairly unusual presence in classical circles. George Crumb used it in Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death, Frank Martin's Villon setting, Poèmes de la Mort (1969-71) is for male voices and electric guitars, three of each. John Buller's Proença, a commission for the Proms Jubilee season in 1977 is scored for mezzo, electric guitar and large orchestra. I would also mention the Birmingham-based British composer Andrew Downes who has written a fantastic virile concerto for acoustic guitar, electric guitar and orchestra.
Rush - a concerto for alto saxophone in two movements - again slips kindly, quietly and modestly into our listening space. There's no brazen lapel-grabbing and shaking. In that sense it's rather akin to the glistening peaceful passages of Michael Nyman's Where the Bee Dances, in the masterly hands and breath control of John Harle or Jess Gillam. The second movement (finale) while not a stranger to peace has a preponderance of intricately patterned wild and woolly virtuosity - Gershwin meets Schuman. Now there's a thought: a saxophone concerto by William Schuman. As for Fuchs' finale it is more bustling gregarious Waterfront than sleepy peaceful Quiet City.
Fuchs' Rush (commissioned by Ryan Janus, then principal saxophonist of the United States Air Force Academy Band) was premiered by the Space Coast Symphony Orchestra/Aaron Collins with George Weremchuk (saxophone) in Vero Beach, Florida on 9 November 2013. The version with military band was given by the United State Air Force Band/Col. Larry H. Lang and TSgt Ricky Parrell (saxophone) at the United States Capital, Washington. D.C. on 16 July 2013. Rush was later heard in an account by Jeremy Justeson (saxophone) with the Kutztown University Orchestra and Timothy Schwarz, on 28 April 2015 in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. The University City Symphony Orchestra directed by Leon Burke III gave it hall space with Ryan Janus (saxophone) in University City, Missouri on 25 February 2018.
The liner notes could hardly be more authoritative. They are by Fuchs himself and only merit a thumbs down because they do not detail the dates and other details of these comparatively recent works' premieres. That said, all the minutiae are there, one way or another, on the composer's website. The Naxos booklet comes in English complete with profiles of all the works, artists and the composer and the words of all twelve of Wolfe's poems.