Carl St. Clair / Pacific Symphony Orchestra

Lukas Foss: Piano Concertos; Elegy for Anne Frank

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This collection of Lukas Foss' piano music is singular not only for its two world premiers -- "Elegy for Anne Frank," with Foss himself performing on piano with a recitation by his daughter Eliza, and his first "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra" from 1943 -- but also for the radical reinterpretations of the "Elegy" without narration and Yakov Kasman's virtuoso performance of the second concerto. Foss is, among Americans, the great link between Aaron Copland, traditional classical music, and the findings of the New York avant-garde in the '50s and '60s. As displayed here, the two concertos, written six years apart, reflect Foss' study with Paul Hindemith. Originally composed at the age of 17 for clarinet and orchestra (a few measures of it remain untouched in the second movement), the first concerto creates a new use for Hindemith's chromatic tonality by elongating its meter and overturning its rhythmic considerations to deepen colors and textures. The harmonic equations are, nearly 60 years later, staggering. The first movement, with its sprightly tempo, is followed with a deeply romantic one (where the clarinet makes its precisely stated yet brief appearance as a soo instrument). And the third movement is one of Hungarian folk song. In all three movements, however, it is Jon Nakamatsu's piano that guides an orchestral flow through timbral nuance and polytonal transformation. "Concerto No. 2," which was began in 1949 and later revised in 1952, recalls both Beethoven and Stravinsky's orchestral considerations, particularly in the first movement, and becomes in its pianistic efforts completely virtuosi in its second and third movements. It's a very grandiose piece and has always been performed as such. Here, though, conductor St. Clair loosens his control and allows for the subtle anarchy in the counterpoint between piano and orchestra to make its presence felt. Of the two versions of "Elegy for Anne Frank," it's Foss' own performance that raises the curtain here on his feeling for his compositional method. In particular, it is highlighted by his use of staggered arpeggios. The elegant, nuanced reading of the text by his daughter deepens the emotional value of the work. As she reads from the diary -- the unexpurgated one -- she becomes not only the character but also Foss' muse. The manner in which he was moved comes through first in a melancholy lilt by violins that give way to a childlike nursery rhyme on a piano, plucked out nostalgically as if in memory of what was. As the piano plays, its tonality deepens and moves modally toward the ominous until the drumbeats come, signifying the end of childhood, and then the Nazi marching hymn brings with it all the terror of that apocalypse. And just as the march itself becomes unbearable, there is a sudden, very pronounced silence. When the childlike piano melody returns, we know what has taken place, whose life has passed into history. This is one of the most successful Foss volumes to date, not only because of the selection of its material, its wonderful crystalline sound, or even of its tremendous performances, but for the manner in which they fit together to give a portrait of the composer's humanity and musical evolution.

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