FUCHS: Atlantic Riband. American Rhapsody (Romance
for Violin & Orchestra). Divinum Mysterium (Concerto
for Viola & Orchestra). Concerto Grosso. Discover the Wild.
Michael Ludwig (violin); Paul Silverthorne (viola); London Symphony Orchestra/JoAnn
NAXOS 8.559723 TT: 57:39.
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Redux. Kenneth Fuchs (pronounced fooks) studied with, among
others, Milton Babbitt, David Diamond, and Vincent Persichetti. To some
extent, all three
left their mark -- Diamond and Persichetti in the orchestral sound, Babbitt
in a predilection for constructing scores from particular intervals.
Like some in his generation, Fuchs (born in 1956) eschewed the postwar
and went back to the American composers between the wars, like Piston
and Copland, for inspiration. The music often has a "big-shoulder," open-air
quality to it, evoking epic Romantic vistas.
All of the works on this disc at least sound gorgeous. I may care for some
more than others, but I can't call any of them shoddy or routine. I'll
deal with the piece that affected me less, first.
American Rhapsody uses an 11th chord, introduced by the solo violin in
arpeggio, and proceeds to wander up and down the chord. The whole work
lies uncomfortably close to Vaughan Williams's Lark Ascending, and the
comparison shows why the Fuchs is little more than a nice bit and the Vaughan
Williams a masterpiece. Fuchs establishes a norm, and little else. Vaughan
Williams leads us to surprising places along pentatonic routes.
I'd feel like a grinch if I dissed Discover the Wild, an overture
to the great outdoors. Some may dismiss it as "movie music," and
I can see their point. But I happen to like movie music, especially those
for iconic Westerns like The Outriders, The Magnificent Seven, and The
Big Country (by André Previn, Elmer Bernstein, and Jerome
Moross, respectively), ultimately derived from Copland's Rodeo. All those works
just fill you up and make you yearn for big sky -- even me, who normally
hates going anywhere I can't plug in a stereo. Besides, Fuchs has composed
an elegant four minutes from the seed of a rising fifth, perfect for some
glorious brass writing.
Fuchs retooled a string quartet into his Concerto Grosso, for string
quartet and string orchestra. Such a combo immediately calls Vivaldi
to mind, and
although Fuchs doesn't make any attempt to imitate Vivaldi, the procedures
of baroque practice underlie the piece. Fuchs has fashioned the work
out of a small set of ideas: a string tremolo "shimmer," a chorale,
and lyrical ideas based on the drop of an octave and a more-or-less scalar
rise, as well as on the worrying of seconds. The work falls into three
major sections: a "get-acquainted"; extended singing; an energetic
conclusion, which brings back earlier ideas. Fuchs shows wonderful craft,
particularly in the interaction between the solo quartet and the string
The overture Atlantic Riband sends a love letter to the glory days of American
transatlantic ship travel. Fuchs remembers, as I do I, the tail end of
that era, especially the New York City docks at which the great liners
berthed. Some of the most thrilling memories of my boyhood involve seeing
off relatives traveling to Europe, often in gray, misty weather, on large
ships like the S. S. United States. The music begins in cold fog and eventually
opens out into expansive declaration, suggesting the spaces of the ocean
ahead. Again, it's one of those pieces that Fuchs has constructed from
a few intervals and chords -- a use of minimal means to produce a maximal
To me, the one-movement viola concerto Divinum Mysterium is the big work
on the program, and not just because of length. It shares many ideas with
American Rhapsody, including the soloist arpeggiating on, this
time, a ninth chord. However, the medieval Sanctus trope, known as the
Mysterium, serves as its main building block. More may know it as the
Christmas hymn "Of the Father's Love Begotten." Fuchs takes the tune for
a walk through quiet gardens and barn dances, with occasional hints of
the carol "The First Nowell" as well. The rhythmic sections
get your blood moving, while the meditative ones retain point and intensity.
The finale joins the long-limbed melodies with the rhythmic percolation.
Fuchs tries for spiritual exaltation and without a lot of fuss brings
Falletta's readings match the music. They let you know how good each score
may be. American Rhapsody's anemia leaves soloist Michael Ludwig little
to do. He might as well be a hand model or a magician's assistant. The
Concerto Grosso benefits by sharply rhythmic trade-offs between the orchestra
and the string quartet, consisting of the LSO's first chairs. However,
Divinum Mysterium gets a stellar account, aided largely by Paul Silverthorne,
LSO principal viola and the score's dedicatee. I've raved before about
Silverthorne, who may be my all-time favorite violist. He has all the virtues
I associate with intelligent, musically sensitive playing: an imaginative
shaping of line, acute rhythm, awareness of his ideal place in an ensemble.
Beyond this, however, he also has the ability to penetrate to the emotional
core of whatever music he plays. In this case, he projects a mystical intensity.
His isn't a one-size-fits-all approach, and he plays a wide range of music.
His Brahms differs from his Lutyens which differs from his Shostakovich.
He aims to speak in the composer's voice, and to this end, he wants to
understand the music's architecture, as well as its rhetorical shape. I
have no idea whether Fuchs's concerto will last. Much depends on its adoption
by violists. However, Silverthorne's account recommends this work to others
-- listeners, conductors, and players alike.
S.G.S. (June 2013)