Lukas Foss’s four symphonies span most of the 20th Century. Foss made a reputation as a dabbler by midcentury, but in reality was essentially a neo-classicist of great gifts who was sidetracked by opportunistic avant-gardeism after he became Schoenberg’s replacement at UCLA. The symphonies represent the outer halves of his journey and bypass the unfortunate middle period. All of them are in the traditional four movements, and they are generally thoroughly tonal.
Symphony 1 is from 1944 and was premiered by Reiner. It is a quintessential example of the Great American Symphony, fully competitive with the grand works of Copland. The piece was championed by Bernstein. Filled with energy and optimism, it will enthrall anyone attracted to the genre.
Symphony 2, the somewhat later Symphony of Chorales (1955-58), was premiered by Steinberg and Pittsburgh and again championed by Bernstein. The work juxtaposes four Bach chorales with often angular chromatic action. II unfolds as a slow march, III is a gentle pastorale with an exquisitely serene ending, and the finale transforms its chorale into good old American optimism. This could easily be titled “Bach in America”: remember one of Foss’s most notorious pieces was his later Baroque Variations.
His final symphonies are from the 90s. They represent a return to “normalcy” as it were after the loony 60s and aftermath. 3 (1991), Symphony of Sorrows, juxtaposes quiet mysticism with harsh, angular serial ejaculations. II is a haunting Elegy for Anne Frank, followed by a gloss on Eliot’s Waste Land. The work closes with a Copland-esque prayer.
Symphony 4, Window to the Past (1995), refers to Foss’s own past, with quotations from earlier pieces. It opens with a clear sonata form complete with fugal episodes. II shifts from the clean 40s style to the even earlier world of Ives, reminding us that he was also a quintessential American, maybe in many ways even more so than Copland. The latter offers the recurring relief. There is a jovial American scherzo, a cyclic return to the symphony’s opening, and a jumpy, snappy tune juxtaposed with music of optimistic nobility.
This is all terrific stuff and couldn’t be better presented. Unless I’m missing something, I don’t see any of these pieces listed in our index. I find this shocking. It makes this release all the more invaluable: if you like American music, don’t miss it. Performances are spectacular.