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Swimming against the tide

Music by John Foulds -
reviewed by REX HARLEY

'... in performance terms, everything about this disc is excellent ...'

John Foulds. Daniel Hope; Susan Bickley; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; City of Birmingham Youth Chorus; Sakari Oramo. © 2004 Warner Classics

No, not the composer -- 'one of the most remarkable and unjustly neglected figures of the "British Musical Renaissance"' -- but your own, humble reviewer. Everyone else, it seems, is piling critical acclaim onto this disc. The BBC Music Magazine, for example, has voted it one of the best twenty classical discs of the year -- (though in the process they manage to change Three Mantras from Avatara to a whole new work called Antara). Foulds' star is, belatedly, in the ascendant. But, try as I might, I can't fully share this undifferentiated enthusiasm for what's on offer here.

I should say, straight away that, in performance terms, everything about this disc is excellent: the CBSO and its attendant youth choir; the soloists, Susan Bickley and Daniel Hope; and the conducting of Sakari Oramo. Not to mention the quality of sound recording and engineering. Rather, it's the music itself and the somewhat extravagant claims made for it that bring out the curmudgeon in me.

Mirage, a twenty-four minute tone poem, uses (briefly) the device of descending quarter-tones: one of the ways in which, as the booklet notes inform us, Foulds was 'ahead of his time: he started using quarter-tones as early as 1890.' This strikes me as no more, or less helpful than being told that a certain individual in the Trossachs was the first Scotsman to master Esperanto. The question both statements beg is, 'To what effect?'

The effect in Mirage resembles what used to happen in the days of the wind-up gramophone when, suddenly, it began to run out of energy [listen -- track 12, 1:19-2:05]. The strange effect is there, and then it's gone, and the piece continues on its utterly conservative and, essentially predictable way. Mirage was written in 1910, and inhabits -- quarter-tones aside -- the soundworld of Wagner, with a nod towards the tone poems of Richard Strauss. It's workmanlike, very competently orchestrated, but ground-breaking? No.

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Copyright © 11 January 2005 Rex Harley, Cardiff UK


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