Kenneth Fuchs Orchestral Works on Naxos, Vol. 3

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 9

Although it doesn’t say so on the cover, this is Naxos’ third release of orchestral pieces by Kenneth Fuchs (b. 1956) featuring the London Symphony Orchestra led by the always capable JoAnn Falletta. Evidently, Fuchs either has a trust fund or a sponsor with deep pockets. Either way, he remains an enjoyable composer who writes traditionally tonal, immediately accessible music in a recognizably cinematic idiom. Having heard the previous releases in this ongoing series, his strengths and weaknesses are becoming increasingly apparent.

Fuchs’ strengths include concision—his works almost never outstay their welcome—the ability to write a good tune, and a genuine feel for texture and sonority. On the minus side, he seems to rely too heavily on ready-made effects, such as extensive doubling of lyrical melodies by the glockenspiel, harp glissandos, and solo timpani riffs. Indeed, this last item, most obvious in Atlantic Riband and the overture Discover the Wild, sometimes makes the music feel as though composer and player are trying to recall “Troyte” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Another issue that Fuchs shares with so many of his contemporaries is a bad case of “title-itus”. He needs to be careful that the music doesn’t promise verbally more than it delivers sonically. Atlantic Riband theoretically “evokes the struggle and ultimate victory of ocean-crossing immigrants to America….” Oh really? American Rhapsody is a 10-minute lyrical movement for violin and orchestra that’s very pretty, sort of like Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, but “American”? Its sub-heading, “Romance for violin and orchestra”, is truer to the facts, but then who needs titles upon titles? The Viola Concerto “Divinum Mysterium” is the most ambitious piece here—a single movement 17 minutes long that is certainly attractive, but neither divine nor especially mysterious beyond its opening pages. What’s wrong with simply being a Viola Concerto?

The Concerto Grosso for string quartet and string orchestra shows Fuchs’ ability to write colorfully for limited forces, although the frequent resort to harmonics suggests that he really misses that glockenspiel. Call me pedantic, but the fact that this 10-minute-long, single-movement piece demands two unequal ensembles does not a Concerto Grosso make. Finally, Discover the Wild is a peppy four and a half minutes of orchestral fun, but wild it certainly is not, especially in terms of the possibilities of contemporary orchestral music, whether in Fuchs’ style, something more avant-garde, or even the eruptive moments of, say, Walter Piston. Indeed, its main theme bears a striking resemblance (rhythmically at least) to the Bounty paper towel jingle, so perhaps the more apt title for the piece would be “The quilted quicker picker-upper”!

None of this means that there’s anything wrong with Fuchs’ work as such; merely that the frequent contemporary need to evoke extra-musical imagery is a distraction, one that risks trivializing the music and misleading the listener. Certainly these pieces don’t need that particular crutch, or maybe to the extent that titles would be appropriate Fuchs simply hasn’t found the right ones. Be that as it may the performances under Falletta are very good, with the single exception of violinist Michael Ludwig in the Rhapsody. His excessive vibrato quickly turns tacky. Otherwise, if you enjoyed the previous discs in this series, then there is absolutely no reason why you will not equally like this well engineered release.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: No reference recording

    Atlantic Riband; American Rhapsody (Romance for violin and orchestra); Divinum Mysterium (Viola Concerto); Concerto Grosso for string quartet and string orchestra; Discover the Wild (Overture)

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