Monday, January 22, 2018

Foglesong’s Heavy-Handed Suites Recital

Yesterday afternoon in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, Scott Foglesong gave his annual Faculty Artist Series piano recital, providing oral commentary in the absence of program notes. The overall topic for the program involved short-duration compositions and the collections of those pieces into suites. He began with Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 816, the fifth of the six suites that would be published collectively as his “French” suites. Foglesong then assembled a suite of his own, drawing upon the short pieces that Johannes Brahms composed near the end of his life, which were collected and published as his Opera 116, 117, 118, and 119. The program concluded with Children’s Corner, the six-movement suite that Claude Debussy dedicated to his daughter (who was three years old at the time).

Foglesong’s oral commentary is always engaging and informative. Yesterday afternoon, however, he was hampered by a poorly-placed wireless microphone, which made thundering noises whenever he moved. (Foglesong can be very active in his oratory.) There was also some sense that he may have been stretching some points while short-changing others. No mention was made of any intentions (or speculations about same) behind Bach’s suites. (Those who have been following my writing for a while know that I personally place a lot of value on pedagogy having been one of Bach’s major objectives. I would even go so far as to say that the only “audiences” that concerned Bach were church congregations and those attending public ceremonies for which some of the secular cantatas were written.)

It may be that, as a result of being off his oratorical game, so to speak, Foglesong’s keyboard work also suffered. Many of his tempo choices bordered on the frenetic, and his approach to sorting out voices in counterpoint could be idiosyncratic. His comfort zone for the afternoon seemed to be the Debussy collection, perhaps for its inherent playfulness but also perhaps because the program was drawing to a close. At the other extreme, much of the Bach was weak for being hammered out, often concealing any trace that each of the suite’s movements was based on a dance form. The Brahms was more subdued; but it was also labored, often giving the impression that these “short” pieces were overstaying their welcome.

The one lengthy composition was the set of variations that Federico Mompou wrote on the seventh (in A major) of Chopin’s Opus 28 preludes. Foglesong confessed that he decided to learn to play this piece after having written the program notes for the Great Performers Series recital given by Daniil Trifonov this past October. Mompou’s comfort zone was actually in the domain of the sorts of shorter pieces that occupied the rest of yesterday’s program, so this set of twelve variations is actually somewhat idiosyncratic.

It also has a sense of humor seldom encountered in Mompou’s music. He probably could have called this piece “Chopin Variations,” since the Chopin sources go far beyond the A major prelude. The quotation from the Opus 66 “Fantasie-Impromptu” is the most explicit; but just about all of Chopin’s other short-piece genres show up at some time or another. There is also at least one vigorous evocation of Sergei Rachmaninoff; and, in one of the variations, Mompou cannot resist throwing in a reference to at least one of his own shorter pieces. Foglesong delivered this abundance of content with all the clarity it deserves, but the idea that Mompou was having fun that he wished to share with his listeners seems to have eluded Foglesong’s rhetorical stance.

Nevertheless, considering that Mompou’s music is played so seldom, there is no denying that having two occasions to listen to this set of variations in a single season was a real treat.

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