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For a languid summer: Delicious discoveries

The astonishing music of John Foulds is among the recent releases worth seeking out.

July 23, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

SUMMER, traditional thinking in India suggests, is the season of preservation, following spring's creation. Warm weather slows down brains and bodies.

But summer also offers liberation. Clothes loosen. Inhibitions lessen. Minds open. If holidays are meant for recharging batteries, they also invite exploration.

Summertime music, as practiced at the Hollywood Bowl, the great lawn of Central Park and hundreds of other pleasant settings, remains mainly in the lazy-day mold. Those ready for adventure, with a few free hours to hear something new and possibly revelatory, must look elsewhere.

They needn't look far. Whether the record industry is in its last throes I can't say. It does keep on recording Beethoven symphonies and Mozart piano sonatas and Shostakovich concertos with abandon, ever adding to the already dizzying array of alternatives.

Yet it just as happily keeps coming up with other options, including works by composers you probably have never heard of and others, by composers you have heard of, that you probably had no idea existed. A lot of this is, at best, third-rate, lost to history for perfectly good reasons. The Hyperion label's Romantic Piano Series is up to Vol. 40 with the release of three inoffensive Liszt-lite piano concertos by Henri Herz.

But there are genuine delights to be discovered, and every so often something comes along to blow your mind. John Foulds just blew mine.

I knew of Foulds as one of those early 20th century British composers of jaunty light music that I think you have to be English and born no later than 1920 to appreciate. But Sakari Oramo, the young Finnish conductor who succeeded Simon Rattle as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, has made it a cause to reveal to the world a forgotten original.

Orami has just released his second all-Foulds CD on Warner Classics. It begins with "Dynamic Triptych," which was written while the peripatetic composer lived in Paris in the late '20s and which happens to be one of the more astonishing piano concertos of the first half of the 20th century.

It is hard to believe that this piece or other similarly gripping scores by Foulds could have been overlooked for so long. He was anything but unknown in his day. His light music, with which he earned his living, was daily fare on the BBC in the 1920s. Performances of his "World Requiem," involving more than 1,000 performers, were mounted each Armistice Day between 1923 and 1926. He was a mystic and inventor -- one of the first Western musicians to take an interest in Indian music and to use its instruments in Western work. In 1898, when he was 18, he began experimenting with microtonality, long before anyone else in Europe. Some of his more adventurous works display crashing dissonances, vibrant rhythmic energy and even proto-Minimalist tendencies. He had a gift for sweet melody and took pleasure in orgiastic climaxes.

A singular sensation

THINK of Scriabin, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Percy Grainger, Lou Harrison and Terry Riley rolled into one and you might have an idea of what the "Dynamic Triptych," with Peter Donohoe as the excellent piano soloist, sounds like. But not really, because Foulds had a voice all his own.

In the exotically lush and tuneful slow movement, for instance, Foulds lowers the boom by having the strings make weird, wondrous quarter-tone shifts. As during an airplane's sudden shift in altitude, your stomach needs a startling second to catch up with the rest of you.

The CD also offers the gorgeous, Delius-like "April-England," the atmospheric renderings of paintings in "Music-Pictures Group III," the lightweight "Keltic Lament" and the numinous "The Song of Ram Dass." After Paris, Foulds moved to India to immerse himself in raga, but he contracted cholera and died in Calcutta in 1939 at age 58.

Nearly everyone knows Foulds' near contemporary and friend in Paris, Paul Dukas. He wrote the symphonic poem "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," and Mickey Mouse passed it on to the world. The problem is that Dukas wrote far too little else. There is a single, large-scale symphony, which is occasionally recorded; an opera; and another exceptional ballet, "La Peri." And there is a single, big-boned Piano Sonata, premiered in 1901, four years after "Sorcerer's Apprentice."

It is a beast of a work. Debussy disliked it; Ravel stole from it. The slow movement is of heart-stopping beauty. It has been recorded before, but without attracting attention. That should change after the breathtaking new recording by Marc-Andre Hamelin.

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