Déjà Review: this review was first published in November 2004 and the recording is still available.
John Foulds (1880-1939)
Three Mantras from Avatara, Op 61b (1930)
Lyra Celtica – concerto for voice and orchestra, Op 50 (1925) [16:11]
Apotheosis (Elegy) – Music Poem No 4 for violin and orchestra, Op 18 (1907)
Mirage – Music Poem No 5 for orchestra, Op 20 (1910)
Susan Bickley (mezzo)
Daniel Hope (violin)
City of Birmingham SO/Sakari Oramo
rec. 2004, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, UK
Warner Classics 2564 615252 
It is only within the lifetime of the present British Music Society that the serious music of John Foulds began to appear on recordings. At the beginning of the 1980s there was produced on the Forlane label what was for its period a remarkably adventurous 3-LP set (long since deleted but reissued on CD on Forlane) of orchestral music by Parry, Brian and Foulds, with the Luxembourg Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leopold Hager. Within the same few years there appeared three further highly significant LPs: the Endellion Quartet’s highly praised recording for the Pearl label of some of Foulds’ best music for string quartet (an early BMS-supported project); Peter Jacobs’ similar survey for Altarus of Foulds’ solo piano music; and Lyrita’s recording with Howard Shelley and the RPO conducted by Vernon Handley of the superb Dynamic Triptych (review).
Then, just over a decade ago, Lyrita published a recording of five orchestral works by Foulds with the London Philharmonic Orchestra playing in peak condition and conducted by Barry Wordsworth (review) – a recording notable above all for its inclusion of the stunning Three Mantras, a self-contained suite derived from the abandoned Sanskrit opera Avatara and consisting of the Preludes to each of that mysterious work’s three Acts. This viscerally exciting piece, one of Foulds’ very best, has in more recent years received a number of concert performances as well as the second recording here reviewed; but prior to the sessions for the Lyrita recording it had never been played, a fate which still applies to much of Foulds’ music.
In 1998 the list of recordings of significant Foulds works was further extended by the addition to the catalogue of his impressive and moving Cello Sonata, which appeared in yet another world-première recording on the British Music Society’s own label (review), and proved a best-seller for its producers. This was the piece named winner in an early BMS competition seeking nominations for works most urgently requiring recording at the time.
And thus we arrive at more recent times and the present recording, which is described by the composer’s son in a prefatory note in the CD booklet as a ‘watershed’. Indeed it is – but let us not forget its very praiseworthy predecessors! Included in the programme (nearly eighty minutes in length) are two further world-première recordings containing beautiful solo performances from Susan Bickley (in the Hebridean, quarter-tone infused Lyra Celtica) and Daniel Hope (in Apotheosis, a one-movement evocation of late-Romantic style dedicated to the memory of Joseph Joachim, whom Foulds heard play with the Hallé Orchestra which he himself joined as a cellist in 1900), as well as a new, and surely superior, recording of the early Straussian tone poem Mirage which was included in the Forlane set (though I have not heard the latter).
As for Three Mantras, the new performance, full of compelling drive and momentum in the outer movements and successfully capturing the visionary quality of the Holstian central movement with its additional wordless female chorus – fresh-voiced and pure – must now be regarded as the preferred choice of the two currently available. But there is not a lot in it, and I for one retain great fondness for the LPO performance, expertly balanced by Decca engineers in the recording studio. The new performance is equally well, if slightly more distantly, recorded ‘live’ in the concert-hall (Birmingham’s Symphony Hall); but is not the sound of the tam-tam at the very end, as recorded or indeed played, rather obliteratingly over-the-top, however immediately exciting it may be? Compare Lyrita here, with its more integrated orchestral balance. (What would Foulds have preferred, had he ever heard the work performed?)
This new recording, enterprisingly produced by Warner Classics, is self-recommending. It will be sought by all Foulds enthusiasts, along with the Lyrita recording (the only duplication of repertoire involves Three Mantras). It also deserves more widely dispersed distribution and appreciation among general music lovers, and this it will hopefully receive as news of its excellence is broadcast.
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