Lukas Foss (1922- ) was a close associate of Leonard Bernstein's over the years and their piano music sounds much alike. Foss himself was the piano soloist on the first recording of Bernstein's 'Age of Anxiety' symphony and fair made Bernstein's piano writing sit up and beg--some of the most engaging piano music of the 1940s. What we have here is a CD that contains all of Foss's solo piano music, from 'Grotesque Dance' of 1938 through to 'For Lenny, Variations on "New York, New York"' of 1987. It's all of a piece, fruit from the Stravinsky branch of the neoclassical tree with much more convincing jazz licks than Stravinsky ever wrote. What is amazing is how much some of it also sounds so reminiscent of Bernstein's 1940s jazzy music. Granted by the time he came to 'Solo' of 1981 there was a more astringent harmonic underpinning, but it is all in Foss's own voice.
'Scherzo Ricercato' (1954) combines Bachian fugato writing with perky neoclassic rhythmic displacements. It should be noted that Bach was also a huge influence on Foss's writing; indeed, his 'Phorion' (an orchestral piece) is his own considerable deconstruction of some of the master's music; it is witty and profound at the same time. 'Scherzo Ricercato' may not be profound, but it certainly is witty and fun. 'Passacaglia' (1940) is a blues number upon a ground bass. And it's lovely as well. 'Grotesque Dance,' (1938) was written when Foss was only sixteen and legend has it that he wrote it while riding a New York subway. Be that as it may, it is made up of off-beat accents, asymmetric phrase lengths and sweet-sour harmonies reminiscent of Prokofiev. 'Prelude in D' (1951) is a hauntingly melancholic jazz-tinged homage to all those arioso preludes in Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.
'Fantasy Rondo' (1944) is the only piece here that I didn't immediately fall for. It is indeed a fantasy with enough recurring material to qualify, I suppose, as a rondo, but it strikes me as too loosely organized and without sufficiently interesting material to hold one's interest for its nine-minute length. Perhaps if it had been tightened... 'Four Two-Part Inventions' (1938) are, of course, Bachian again and written in a Hindemithian counterpoint cum stride bass style. The counterpoint is not only excellent it somehow also manages to be both sassy and insouciantly touching. The fourth invention could almost have been written by Shostakovich, but with a jazz bass line thrown in.
'For Lenny, Variation on "New York, New York"' (1987) is, for me, the most successful thing here. I just love its habañera rhythm that supports a Lenny-esque loose-limbed jazz improvisation. One can picture Lenny sitting, with cigarette dangling, squinting against the smoke, and letting his imagination run. A shame it's only 2 1/2 minutes long. The disc closes out with the longest work, the 13-minute 'Solo' (1981) which nods in the direction of the then-newest thing in American music: minimalism. Somehow, though, it still sounds like Foss/Stravinsky/Bernstein. One factor in this is that the energy for forward motion comes from Bachian/neo-classical structures, not incessant repetition over slow harmonic motion. A tour de force.
Scott Dunn, a pianist new to me, treats the music with respect but also with a twinkle in his eye, which is precisely what this music requires. Nice job.
[Addendum: I've just learned that there is another CD with precisely the same Foss pieces, plus an audio interview with Mr Foss, on the Sonatabop label (not available here at Amazon but from their own website) that features pianist Daniel Beliavsky. I have not heard it.]