American Classics - Foote: Francesca Da Rimini, Character Pieces, Suite / Schwarz, Seattle So

Regular price $11.99
Added to Cart! View cart or continue shopping.

FOOTE Francesca da Rimini. Serenade: Air; Gavotte. 4 Character Pieces after “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam.” Suite in E Gerard Schwarz, cond; Seattle SO NAXOS 8.559365 (59:20)

Arthur Foote (1853–1937) first captured my attention and then my heart some 10 years ago on another Naxos recording (8.559039) containing his two piano trios. The Adagio molto of the Trio No. 1 in C Minor is of such throbbing pathos it still takes my breath away every time I hear it. Foote, a member of the so-called “Boston Six,” which also included Amy Beach, Chadwick, MacDowell, John Knowles Paine, and Horatio Parker, was among the generation of American composers who were either themselves European trained under the likes of Joachim Raff, Josef Rheinberger, and Max Bruch or they were protégés of those who were. Foote was one of the latter, a student of Paine at Harvard. Unabashed in their Romantic persuasions, most of these Americans championed Brahms, Wagner, and other late-19th- and early-20th-century German composers. The slightly later Charles Ives (1874–1954), a Parker student at Yale, was similarly indoctrinated—anyone familiar with his Dvo?ák-genuflecting Symphony No. 1 can hear the evidence for himself—but the Connecticut Yankee was too much of a maverick and an iconoclast to stay the course. He followed his bliss in a direction that would lay the foundations for the uniquely American music of Copland, Roy Harris, and William Schuman.

Much of Foote’s output consists of chamber works—quartets, quintets, trios, and duo sonatas, genres in which he excelled. But his large ensemble works—especially his 1907 E-Major Suite, premiered by the Boston Symphony, and his 1900 Four Character Pieces after “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam” —reveal the sure hand of a master orchestral composer at work.

Tchaikovsky was not the only composer whose febrile imagination was fired by Dante’s tale of lust and illicit love between Paolo and Francesca who, doubtless to appease medieval morals, were dished their just desserts when they were condemned to spend eternity tossed by the winds of Hell. In fact, at least one other composer besides Foote followed Tchaikovsky’s example with an orchestral fantasy or tone poem of his own, Antonio Bazzini in 1890; and two other composers, Rachmaninoff and Riccardo Zandonai (1883–1944), wrote operas on the theme. It would seem that fury hath no hell like lovers scored. If Foote’s take on the doomed pair were better known than it is, it might actually overtake Tchaikovsky’s fantasy in popularity. Then again, probably not, for I’m prone to hyperbole when I’m swept up by a piece of music new to me that elicits such a powerful response. The more reasoned truth is that Foote was neither as emotionally unconstrained nor as resourceful in inventing orchestral effects to imitate the licking flames and turbulent maelstrom as Tchaikovsky was in his masterful musical portrait of an afterlife of agony and affliction. Foote’s score is ultimately too tame and too well behaved to conjure Dante’s guilt-trip through the dungeons of shame and forever-frustrated carnal desire. For Tchaikovsky, the guilt trip was all too autobiographical. Foote’s Francesca da Rimini is drop-dead gorgeous music, no question about it, but its theme is as it might have been construed by Brahms, whose kindness and compassion in the end would have forgiven the two lovers and reunited them in happiness everlasting.

And so it goes with every piece on this disc. The Air from the 1889 Serenade throbs with the heartbeat of Tchaikovsky and the pulse of Grieg. Listen closely, and you will even hear a distant echo of the famous Air from Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D Major. The Four Character Pieces after “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam” are orchestral arrangements by the composer of some of his piano pieces. More colorfully orchestrated than Francesca da Rimini , the Persian sketches are painted with harp, percussion, and pizzicato effects, but again, you can expect more of an outpouring of beautiful music than the exoticisms of Bantock and Hovhaness.

Little wonder that Foote’s 1907 E-Major Suite brought the composer much recognition in his lifetime. As with the Serenade, we are reminded yet again of the string serenades and suites by Tchaikovsky, Grieg, and Stenhammar. Two minutes and 18 seconds into the second movement there comes a tearful melody that would have made Mantovani green with envy. The Suite’s concluding fugue, however, anticipates by nearly 40 years the fugue on a theme by Henry Purcell in Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra . The subject and its rigorous working out are evidence of Foote’s solid academic grounding.

This new Naxos CD has only recently been released, but the recording dates of these works are all over the map. Francesca da Rimini and the Rubáiyát pieces were recorded as long ago as 1997, while the Suite was recorded between late 2004 and early 2005, and the Air and Gavotte from the Serenade in 2007. If you’re not already acquainted with the works of Arthur Foote, this disc is an excellent place to start. It contains an hour’s worth of exceptionally beautiful music in a late-19th- early-20th-century style that’s impossible to resist by anyone who loves to luxuriate in the just-barely-past-ripe Romantic garden. Gerard Schwarz and his Seattle players fit Foote like a comfortable pair of shoes.

Urgently recommended, but please explore further. Naxos has recorded a good deal of Foote’s chamber music, which was his real forte, and I cannot urge you too strongly to discover it.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

A must for those seeking a truly unique musical personality.

While it has been pointed out innumerable times that the members of the New England School of the late 19 th century were conservative and Brahmsian, it should not be forgotten that they all had distinctive musical personalities and that many of their European contemporaries were equally Brahmsian. Foote himself stood out from his colleagues in a number of ways. He was the first American composer of note to receive his entire musical education in America. Unlike his confrères he was, for most of his career, not an academic, but made his living by teaching, playing the organ and performing in chamber music recitals. Much of his music contains neo-classical and even impressionistic elements - rarities in the America of his time. Most important his music has a serenity and quiet strength that would be unique anywhere.

Although he produced copious amounts of vocal, choral, chamber and keyboard music, Foote only wrote seven orchestral works which met his standards. Besides the works on this disk there are an early overture, a cello concerto and a suite for full orchestra (none recorded). In the 1880s Foote produced two separate suites for strings, but was not satisfied with either of them. After many revisions he collected a few of the individual pieces into the Serenade Op. 25, from which we have the Air and Gavotte here. The Air is stately and quite Bachian, full of the composer’s restrained emotionalism. As it develops it becomes more emotional and betrays a certain American tinge at the same time. The reprise is very affecting, with interesting counterpoint and masterly handling of tonality. In contrast, the Gavotte dates from the composer’s teens, at least in its original version. It is somewhat more adventurous harmonically, with a charming middle section reminiscent of Grieg. Again, there is some interesting counterpoint before the return to the opening material.

A year after the Serenade was published Foote produced his second work for full orchestra, the Symphonic Prologue Francesca da Rimini. The work shows an excellent handling of both structure and orchestration, although the latter does betray the influence of Brahms. The repeated main theme emphasizes the sadness of the tale of Paolo and Francesca rather than some of the more stormy elements familiar from Tchaikovsky’s version of the story. The work is compact and to the point, with wide-ranging tonal shifts somewhat reminiscent of Elgar. A wonderful second subject stays in the memory once heard. The middle of the piece relies heavily on the strings, which reach higher and higher until a restatement of the second subject. This is followed by a crescendo leading to a summation of the whole piece, portraying Dante’s image of the two lovers floating in the air, but not being able to touch. Foote accomplishes this in masterful fashion.

The Four Character Pieces after the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is probably Foote’s masterwork. In it are combined all the structural and emotional elements described above, but with the addition of the composer’s own brand of “eastern” exoticism, one that is not at all sentimental or fake. Each movement is prefaced in the score by a passage from the Rubáiyát. The Andante evokes the world of the Rubáiyát almost instantaneously and shows a command of the orchestra one would never have predicted from Francecsca da Rimini. One can hear the gardens and the cup of wine described in the attached quotation. The second movement is a complete contrast, describing the great royal courts of the East and is one of Foote’s most forceful passages. The gentler middle section is actually based on the same rhythm as the opening. The slow movement describes the most famous passage ‘’’A jug of wine, a Loaf of Bread…”This is done with a very slow progress to a semi-crescendo, followed by a lovely pastoral. The final Andante begins with Omar’s invocation to the Moon though a set of rhythmical variations matched at every step by the orchestration. This leads to an allegro evoking the words “Waste not your hour…” with grandiose references to the opening of the whole work and then to other movements, as if to drive the point home before the movement dies away.

The Suite in E has been an American classic since its premiere in 1907, especially given the many reissues of Koussevitsky’s wonderful recording. This is a piece that requires exact control of tempi to be a success and it cannot be said that Schwarz totally masters this aspect. In the first movement his handling of the noble opening theme is first rate, as is the development. The second movement starts with a Pizzicato that Schwarz takes pretty well, followed by an Adagietto that is one of Foote’s most memorable utterances-Schwarz also does well here. But in the exciting final Fugue the tension slackens noticeably and doesn’t provide the comprehensive conclusion that Foote intended.

Although recorded at different times and in different venues, the playing on this disc is quite consistent and is yet another example of how well the Seattle Symphony does with American music. The woodwinds are strong throughout, especially in their all-important role in the Four Character Pieces. The strings are also very good in the Air and the Suite. The real yeoman work here is by Gerard Schwarz. He puts genuine love and attention into every one of these pieces and this disc will rank high amongst his American music recordings as well, even if his work in the Suite is a little uneven. Since the last recording of the Four Character Pieces was in the 1960s and that of Francesca about ten years later, there is no question of competition in this area, although the sound quality in Francesca and the Gavotte could be a little less coarse. This disk brings several essential American works back to modern recording standards and it is only to be hoped that we may someday have recordings of Foote’s other three orchestral works.

-- William Kreindler, MusicWeb International 

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8559365

  • UPC: 636943936528

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Arthur Foote

  • Conductor: Gerard Schwarz

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Seattle Symphony Orchestra