Whoever said grand sweeping melodies were a thing of the past? Grant Foster clearly has a penchant for the archetype of the brooding Russian virtuoso pianist-composer, despite being based in Bowral. You may remember Foster from his in-depth Limelight interview a few months back. After initially studying in Sydney he set off for Paris and London, where he built up a solid reputation as a pianist and composer before returning to Australia to settle in rural NSW.

This CD is a follow up to The Music of Grant Foster and features two main works: the Russian-inspired The Pearl of Dubai suite for piano, cello and orchestra, and a setting of Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol for tenor and piano. As a bonus there is a DVD of the Ballad and part of the suite played live in concert.

The overall impression of Foster’s orchestral music is that of a stirring and decadent black-and-white film score, albeit with super-smooth edges and superior sound quality. The pieces are unashamedly Romantic, as if Rachmaninov had been cryogenically frozen and thawed out in the 21st century. The Pearl of Dubai is the most ambitious work here, a set of mini tone poems and concertos connected by a fantastical program. By contrast, the Ballad is a solemn meditation with a simple yet affecting melodic arc.

Foster’s music is, so far, little known here, so for now the Russians have a compelling claim over his music. The performers are mostly Russian (even Sydney-born Andrew Goodwin studied in Russia) and include one of the composer’s biggest champions, pianist Mira Yevtich. The performances are excellent all round. Foster’s enterprise brings up an interesting issue. What does it mean to be an Australian composer? There’s nothing in Foster’s music that obviously places him as Antipodean, except the nod to the European element of our heritage.

Perhaps he represents our yearning for far-flung places and the egalitarian freedom we hold dear. Even if his idiom is a world away from contemporary concerns, Foster writes very well and he ought to appeal to listeners of a classical bent. Admittedly the momentum can flag at times when the style wins out and the music follows the tropes of late Romanticism rather than its own logic. Ultimately, however, Foster deserves to be heard a lot more on our concert stages and might even have a future in film scores. If this is a bit like eating a rich dessert for an hour, then it’s a delicious indulgence.

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