FOSS Complete Symphonies
‘Foss came to neo-classicism late,’ the booklet-notes accompanying this first survey of all four Lukas Foss symphonies tell us, to which the obvious retort might be: yes, and everything else too. In fact, Foss would turn stylistic squirrelling into a virtue, arguing that the more vocabulary and techniques at a composer’s disposal – which in his case ranged from serialism towards neo-classicism via minimalism and free improvisation – the richer the result. ‘Why should the artist restrict himself to one technique?’ he asked.
And these four symphonies – which bookended his career, two at the beginning, two at the end – represent his hard fought-for response to that question. By far the most structurally robust and smartly edited is the Second, subtitled Symphony of Chorales, and painstakingly assembled between 1955 and 1958. It is the only one of Foss’s symphonies to have been recorded before, in the late Fifties by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Foss himself, and the fevered-brow, stentorian intensity of that recording (unreleased at the time but now floating around online) clearly sets the tone for this new project by Gil Rose and his highly polished Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
The piece is rooted in Bach, although not the JSB-with-incongruous-pitch material wheeze that Foss pulled in his classic Phorion. Here Bach’s originals have been internalised to the point where the original sources lose their corporeal form, softening to such a degree that Foss is at liberty to restructure the internal architecture of Bach’s chorales at will, notes becoming disembodied from their harmonies. The motoric pulses of the opening movement give way to a brilliant slow movement, Bergian in its expressionist angst as Foss relentlessly winds his material towards a hysterical climax.
Alas, the remainder of the set suffers major longueurs. The sherbety Third Symphony, Symphony of Sorrows, tries to be Leonard but ends up more like an Elmer Bernstein film score. The Fourth Symphony, Window to the Past, has one outstanding section as time becomes suspended around string glissandos, a portal through which slip folksy mementos of Americana; the rest of the symphony indulges in too much spinning around harmonic permutations, waiting for something to happen. Symphony No 1 in G is Foss’s crack at a Copland-meets-Roy Harris/Samuel Barber neo-classical American symphony. Inconsistency is again the only consistency – but a schizoid Stravinsky-jazz-Music for the Theater third-movement Scherzo points the way forwards.