Under the Surface at the Proms – John Foulds’ Three Mantras

Prom 38, 13 August 2015 – London Symphony Chorus Womens’ Voices, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Juanjo Mena at the Royal Albert Hall


John Foulds Three Mantras (1919-1930)


We definitely undervalue the BBC orchestras when the Proms take centre stage. I say that because this was one of the most colourful orchestral Proms it has been my pleasure to witness, and much of the credit for that should go to the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, a riot of bright shades under Juanjo Mena in Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphony. Yet while that performance will inevitably take centre stage, it was another work that stole the show.

John Foulds has spent a long time languishing in the musical wilderness, but in the last ten years he has begun to reach a bigger audience. A good deal of thanks for this should go to conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, who recorded two discs of his orchestral works with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. They enchanted us with Foulds’ inventiveness, and most importantly his eagerness to incorporate Eastern cultures within an extremely Western art form. In this respect he was in line with Gustav Holst.

One of the finest works in this respect is the 3 Mantras, thought to be part of a massive Sanskrit opera, Avatara. Very sadly that never came to be, and 300 pages are lost from the score, but the 3 Mantras survive and make a very accomplished and unusual orchestral piece. The colours are simply beautiful, achieved through a wide variety of percussion, harps and shimmering strings, all of which Mena marshalled to show the detail of Foulds’ inventive orchestration.

It is the second piece, the Mantra of Bliss (starting at 8:13 on the link above) that is the most striking, a meditation of radiant orchestral beauty, where Foulds uses a wordless female chorus to enchanting effect. Holst had done this before, in Neptune from The Planets, but rather than that cold emptiness Foulds creates exotic warmth.

The outer two mantras are very different; the first a bustle of activity that slows for a moving slower melody; the third an almost barbaric dance that wheels out of control and wields a fearsome set of percussion at the end. This was a terrific performance from the BBC Philharmonic, showing off Foulds’ gifts to a new audience that will hopefully look to discover more of the music of this remarkable composer.

Want to hear more

You can hear a playlist from BBC Radio 3’s CD Review, where Andrew McGregor explores recordings of John Foulds’ music, by clicking here

There will be more Under the Surface features as the Proms progress, exploring lesser known pieces and composers at the festival

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