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Too measured for its own good

Lukas Foss: 1st symphony &c (Naxos)

Lebrecht's Album of the Week

★★★☆☆

Lukas Foss was a classmate of Leonard Bernstein’s at the Curtis Institute and a lifelong friend, though never an equal. While Bernstein blazed to national glory in his annus mirabilis of 1944, Foss was quietly composing his first symphony in the bucolic tranquility of the MacDowell Colony. His Curtis teacher Fritz Reiner premiered the symphony in Pittsburgh a year later but without wider acclaim. Foss’s Americana style sounded both dated and derivative. Aaron Copland did this stuff so much better, and a decade sooner. Foss also composed three ballets that year, but he lacked Bernstein’s On the Town recklessness and his ferocious gift for being in the right place at the right time. Son of a Berlin philosopher who fled the Hitler regime, the music of Lukas Foss sounds rather too measured for its own good.

Foss served Buffalo as music director from 1963 to 1970, followed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Milwaukee Symphony, all good orchestras if not world beaters. This fine tribute album by the Buffalo Philharmonic is conducted by JoAnn Falletta. She gives a highly spirited account of his symphony, and intense readings of an Ode to the casualties of war and Three American Pieces. All sit easy on the ear. A Renaissance Concerto for flute and orchestra, bridging baroque and nuclear-age mindsets, fails to grip the imagination. The music is beautifully made. You keep wishing there was more grit. Foss was not a shrinking violet in his fiery relationship with Bernstein. These scores are comparatively Lukewarm Foss.

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