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Second installment from Fuchs and Wilson

Second installment from Fuchs and Wilson
Second installment from Fuchs and Wilson
This may sound like a strange observation, but for me, one of the stars of this show, aside from the composer and the conductor, is the orchestra “leader” (or as non-British orchestras call them, the concertmaster).

Anyone who follows my blog will have undoubtedly read my extreme irritation with this orchestra’s string section on their most recent album of music for strings – where their manic, frenzied vibrato was just ridiculous (especially in the Enescu). The “leader” on that album was Charlie Lovell-Jones, and I suspect he is largely responsible for the string sound heard there (though likely coaxed on by the conductor). I was thrilled to hear the orchestra’s strings return to normalcy and good taste on this new album of music by Kenneth Fuchs (just as they had been on Volume One in the series). And noting this is a different “leader” seems to confirm my suspicions.

The leader for this recording session is John Mills, just as he was on the previous Fuchs album. And the strings are absolutely glamorous – shimmering, vibrant, silky and lush. Nowhere to be heard is the frantic, hysterical vibrato we heard from this group on the Music for Strings album. One wonders why John Wilson allows it to occur with one “leader” but not the other. 

That being said, I found the orchestral playing on this new album to be absolutely sensational. Moreover, recording engineer Ralph Couzens has once again returned his microphones to an optimal positioning (after the mishap with the Daphnis and Chloe recording). The orchestra has regained clarity and focus within a spacious acoustic, and dynamics expand effortlessly and powerfully into the hall. All I can say is – hooray for small miracles!

Now getting to the matter at hand, I was a little disappointed to discover there isn’t a whole lot of new music on this second volume of orchestral music by Kenneth Fuchs. Of the four pieces recorded here, three are re-orchestrations of preexisting works and only one is newly composed. Fortunately, the reworked material is quite rewarding.

Eventide was originally written for English Horn and Orchestra, as recorded by JoAnn Falletta and the LSO for Naxos in 2003. It is played here by an alto saxophone instead. The bass trombone concerto was originally written for a wind band accompaniment, while the “Point of Tranquility” was an original concert band work. Both have been previously recorded in their original band versions but are transcribed for orchestra on this new recording. Only the opening work, Light Year, is brand new. 

I don’t mean to sound disparaging. All of this music is quite wonderful (though not quite as wonderful as that on the first volume) and certainly benefits from the boundless color, dynamic range and atmosphere only an orchestra can produce. And with John Wilson on the podium (and John Wills leading the violins), and the very best recorded sound from Chandos – well it doesn’t get much better than this.

I’ll save the new work for last (and indeed I listened to it last), so let’s start with the glorious saxophone playing of Timothy McAllister in Eventide. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this as much as the original played on English Horn, but I did! With a saxophone as soloist, the piece frequently reminded me of Henri Tomasi‘s glorious Saxophone Concerto – one of his most accomplished works, and surely my very favorite piece ever written for saxophone and orchestra. McAllister plays with exquisite tone, not at all brassy or coarse. This is a sweet and buttery sound, infused with vibrancy and air (but not breathiness). And his vibrato simply shimmers with elegance, not unlike an English horn. However, there is an appealing bit of huskiness to it (which certainly differentiates it from an English horn), along with delicacy. There’s also just the occasional hint of a jazz-influenced lip slur – but only rarely and just barely perceptible in its subtlety. In short, this is musicianship of exquisite elegance – appropriate for the piece.
Well, except for that strange 6th Variation (“Bong like a church bell”), where the soloist plays with a weird guttural flutter tone, for no apparent musical reason. I couldn’t remember if the English horn played it this way on the Naxos recording, and a quick spot-check confirmed it did – sounding even worse. It sounds like McAllister is doing his utmost to minimize it as much as possible on his sax. But I simply don’t understand why it’s there at all. Why disrupt such gorgeousness with this? Fortunately it doesn’t last long and mercifully does not recur. And it is immediately followed by the most luscious, shimmering strings you’ll ever hear on record in the next Variation. So all is good and my faith in this version of the piece is restored. 
A bass trombone concerto is certainly not something I would normally be interested in, but this is by Kenneth Fuchs so it just might be good! Not unlike his 2015 Glacier for electric guitar and orchestra, it’s the orchestral contribution which makes the piece memorable. It’s scored with all the color and resourcefulness an orchestra can generate, with the soloist almost an afterthought. The trombone part is not really all that interesting (maybe more so for trombone players) but manages to integrate itself into the orchestral fabric without being too prominent. James Buckle is obviously an excellent soloist, and I especially admired his lowest notes, which are played with exceptional focus, articulation and roundness of tone. The piece is laid out in 4 continuous sections lasting 14 minutes, which is long enough. 
The orchestration of Point of Tranquility brings about a complete transformation from its original band version. I don’t know if it was a lackluster U.S. Coast Guard Band, or an uninspired director, but I found the piece rather pointless (excuse the pun) on their 2018 Naxos recording of the original. In this orchestral version, it’s just as colorful and atmospheric as other orchestral works by Fuchs. There are beautiful solo passages (the opening trumpet, when joined by some woodwinds, exhibits a luscious blend of sound), followed by big swashes of orchestral color, surrounded by arpeggiated filigree played by all manner of instruments – harps, bells, clarinets (and maybe 2nds and violas). But this isn’t the brilliant splashes of color like we heard in Cloud Slant on the earlier album. True to the title, this is even more atmospheric and relaxing – almost meditative. And at the end, I concluded the music really did portray tranquility in a way a military band couldn’t possibly. 

The piece is a complete success in this orchestral revision. It’s like going from black-and-white to color. Or even more pertinent – mono to stereo. Even though it isn’t newly composed, it sounds newly minted – as only John Wilson and this magnificent orchestra can accomplish.
Finally, the all new work, Light Year (suite for orchestra) is unmistakably Fuchs, and can be by no one else. But it’s not quite as uniquely original as I was hoping. It’s very similar to both Tranquility and Cloud Slant. It seems to combine all the atmosphere of the former with all the color and vitality of the latter in its portrayal of the universe – from the nothingness of space in the opening section, to the brilliant splashes of light which ensue. The endless arpeggiated undulation, agitated and swirling strings, bubbling swashes of color, and sudden brassy outbursts are all instantly recognizable from Fuchs’ other works. 

Don’t for a minute compare this with that familiar suite of planets; no, this is absolutely nothing like that. It’s more ethereal, more cosmic, and certainly more glittering. This music is more about atmosphere and imagination than compositional substance. In fact, I thought it perhaps went on a bit too long without developing real thematic material – or even a memorable tune (though the wistful melodic line on the violins, later echoed by the horn, in Lunar Valley is enchanting.) Even the Scherzos are propelled primarily by bustling, scurrying string flurries. There are certainly lots of notes in this piece!

Not to say I didn’t enjoy every minute of it. I certainly did. But remembering my earlier observation about the importance of the leader of this orchestra, this piece demonstrates why. It’s an orchestral extravaganza – a display of extreme virtuosity and bravura requiring the ultimate in panache and finesse. It exhibits masterful orchestration, at which Fuchs is brilliant. And the orchestral playing is what I admire most about it – over and above compositional prowess. As I noted in my review of his music on the first volume, he can make almost anything – or almost nothing – interesting just with his extraordinary orchestration. And that’s what we have here – spectacular orchestral playing of the very highest distinction, with positively ravishing string sound throughout – thanks to Mr. Mills.

After a second listen, I began to more fully appreciate everything this piece has to offer, and realize I may have underestimated its creative distinction. In fact, I consider this to be Fuchs’ Concerto for Orchestra – more so than Cloud Slant, which the composer himself subtitled “concerto for orchestra”. Light Year features dazzling displays from every section of the orchestra in succession – strings here, brass there, and percussion definitely in “Hot Ice”, where along with bravado trombone glissandos and bold brass interjections, I was reminded of rousing movie music (specifically John Williams and Star Wars). The finale launches us into the cosmos with a splendid orchestral spectacle before fading away into the farthest reaches of outer space – bringing the piece to a wondrous conclusion. 
And it most definitely should have come last on the program. But that’s just me.
In sum, I’m happy to hear the Sinfonia of London sounding glorious again. We can hope Mr. Wilson understands that we can hear the difference. I’m also happy that Chandos has once again achieved superlative recorded sound. We can hear the difference with this as well. And these things matter.

Finally, I look forward to more new music from Kenneth Fuchs – hopefully on a future installment with John Wilson.

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