Depending on whom you read, American composer Arthur Foote is either "traditional," "conservative," "a classicist," or "individual" and "original." Opinions about Foote's work may be widely divergent, but a few things are established: Foote did not travel to Europe to gain his musical education -- as did Horatio Parker and George Chadwick -- but was satisfied to study at Harvard with John Knowles Paine, taking the first master's degree in music conferred on anyone by an American university. Foote has been lumped in with a number of late nineteenth century American composers known as the "Boston School," including Paine, Chadwick, Parker, Amy Beach, and some others. Being identified with the Boston School is like the kiss of death in terms of posterior reputation, and although Beach is gradually finding a way out from the grave, others remain forgotten, unheralded, and under-recognized.
In the case of Foote's orchestral music, the vast majority of his production in that genre belongs to the first 25 years of his active career. In the 15 or so years he continued to compose after that, Foote concentrated solely on chamber music of outstanding quality. The chamber music is generally adjudged to be his most important contribution, even as it remains seldom played or recorded. During his lifetime, however, his orchestral and string orchestra music carried Foote's name onto concert programs more often than anything else he did. On Naxos' Arthur Foote: Francesca da Rimini, Gerard Schwarz realizes a long held dream of leading the Seattle Symphony through a whole disc of Foote.
This disc contains roughly half of Foote's small orchestral output, and each of these pieces were recorded at whatever session Schwarz could get them into; the "symphonic prologue" Francesca da Rimini, Op. 24 (1890), and the Four Character Pieces after the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Op. 48 (1900), were recorded at the Seattle Center Opera House in 1997, even before Seattle's Benaroya Hall was constructed. The others were all made at Benaroya; the Suite in E major, Op. 63 (1970), was recorded in 2005, with the Air and Gavotte (1886-1866) following in 2007. These last two pieces belong to Foote's Serenade for Strings, Op. 25, though the score indicates that these two movements can be played separately. The Air is especially lovely, being modeled after Johann Sebastian Bach's so-called "Air on a G String" much in the manner that Brahms modeled after Bach, with an important difference in that Foote's use of counterpoint is comparatively restrained; the piece is very direct and unfussy. Francesca da Rimini is full-bodied, memorable, and captivating; the Character Pieces are suitably exotic but not over the top and once popular with American symphony audiences; the Suite in E is likewise engrossing, well-realized, and dare we say, original?
The difference between the Benaroya Hall recordings and those from the Seattle Center Opera House is small, but those from Benaroya are warmer, more intimate, and a little less reverberant. Maestro Schwarz turns in loving, attentive performances of these little heard pieces and ought to be congratulated for sticking with his Foote project for so long; Naxos' previous Foote offerings consist of three discs of chamber music once offered in the Marco Polo product line that have since moved to the main label. Another Naxos recording of the Air and Gavotte pair was coupled with music of Samuel Barber. This was not an inappropriate combination; Foote's clarity of vision and restraint are typically American in comparison to the German composers who influenced him, and in a stylistic sense he stands halfway between Brahms and Barber. Certainly a composer working in the 1880s and 1890s that can be likened to Brahms is not a true "conservative," and "individual" seems to be the most distinct tag that applies to Foote, based on these fine interpretations by Schwarz and Seattle. No matter what would tend to stop you from checking out this CD -- whether it's the Boston School thing, or the fact that his name sounds like a body part -- if you like Brahms, you'll like Arthur Foote, and this might hold true if you like Samuel Barber, as well.