Columbia String Quartet; University of Buffalo Percussion Ensemble; Guy Klucevsek, accordion; RoseMarie Freni, mezzo-soprano; Robert Dick, flute; Jan Williams, percussion; Yvar Mikhashoff, piano
In a history of American music populated richly with immigrants and the sons or daughters of immigrants, few absorbed and embraced so readily a richly, demonstrably American style as the German-born Lukas Foss (1922–2009). Or we should say “styles,” since no single approach to American music would suit his diverse and extraordinary talent.
The four works on this disc represent the culmination of Foss’s long period of experimentation beginning in the mid-1950s. String Quartet No. 3 (1976) is his most extreme composition; it is themeless, tuneless, and restless. It is probably the first quartet without a single pizzicato since Haydn. The sound vision which gave birth to this quartet may be the most merciless in the quartet literature. It’s been characterized as a “minimalist Grosse Fuge.”
The main feature of Music for Six (1977) is that any six instruments can play it. It is written entirely in treble clef. Each of the six musicians can take on any of the six parts. Foss, whose imagination was usually fired by the specific possibilities of specific instruments, found it difficult “to think in terms of any six instruments.” His solution: simple motives capable of combining in complex ways.
Curriculum Vitae (1977), for virtuoso accordionist, quotes bits of tunes with autobiographical connotations for Foss: Brahms, Mozart, and the Nazi anthem, among others. It is both tragic and comic, tonal and atonal, simple and intricate.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (1978) is one of Foss’s most important pieces and one of his most successful in integrating his musical concerns with as direct as possible an expression of musical and poetic meaning. As with Time Cycle, the text pushed the composer to expand his musical language in an attempt to match the subtlety and range of the poetry. Most remarkable perhaps is Foss’s ability to match, in the voice part, the surface simplicity of Wallace Stevens’s syntax and language. In Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, Foss was moved to create one of his most unique and enduring masterworks.