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George ROCHBERG (b. 1918)
Symphony No. 5 (1984-85)*
Black Sounds (1965)
Transcendental Variations (1975)*
Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Lyndon-Gee
* World Première Recordings.
Recorded at the Halberg Broadcasting House, Saarländischer Rundfunk, Saarbrücken, Germany, March 19th-23rd 2002 except Black Sounds, December 22nd 2000.
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559115 [61.03]


This is a useful introduction to the work of the living American composer George Rochberg, whose name only previously meant much to me for a Violin Concerto recorded by Isaac Stern with the Pittsburgh Symphony under Previn. It is made more desirable by the fact that two of the works are given their first recordings here, and in some style by Christopher Lyndon-Gee, whose previous Naxos disc was a superb Varèse anthology. Fittingly, this one includes Black Sounds, written in 1965 as a homage to the great French-American iconoclast.

The Symphony is the most recent work and consists of a single movement of seven distinct but connected sections. The Opening Statement gets the work off to a breakneck start and is very filmic in its evocations, not a million miles in some ways from the aforementioned Varèse. The music then alternates between more subdued Episodes, three in all, and again more rhythmic, driven Developments. The horn music in the second Episode is rightly singled out by the conductor's booklet notes as being "hauntingly beautiful" - echoes of Mahler and even Wagner are heard here. The third episode is almost Feldmanesque in its muted, slow bell-like tones, contrasting completely with the urgent, insistent Finale, although even here a sense of uneasy peace is restored temporarily by a poetic, elegiac and very long cello solo. "The power and sweep" of the piece as a whole are self evident, but we are a very long way from American symphonies such as the open air Harris 3rd which is often described with similar language. It is not surprising that a German orchestra was used for the recording because Rochberg's muse is probably as close as you can get, within the 20th century American canon, to the Central-European tradition.

Black Sounds, perhaps contrary to expectations of some jazz inflected workout, is based on a piece for wind ensemble and percussion, Apocalyptica, which was prefaced by some elemental lines from King Lear. It was commissioned for and first performed as a ballet called The Act, about, surprise, surprise, an act of murder, so you probably get the general gist of the piece. Again the word "filmic" springs to mind, as belching brass and hyperactive percussion drive the music forward before some quieter but still insistent passages make an appearance. I suppose the dedication to Varèse is apt, with the music lying somewhere between Stravinsky and Birtwistle! Stimulating listening but tunes are at a premium!

In contrast, Transcendental Variations, a reworking for string orchestra of the slow movement of Rochberg's 3rd String Quartet, is a much smoother, more tonal listening experience, showing how far the composer had moved in the ten years since Black Sounds. The seven variations find the composer at his most Mahlerian with a full, romantic sound imbued with a resigned melancholy. Lovers of the Strauss of Metamorphosen and the Wagner of the Siegfried Idyll will surely also find much to entice them here, particularly in the valedictory final variation. The transcendental of the title is in the sense of time and also, I feel, the transience of human experience. Although rather more richly orchestrated than is usual to this listener's taste there is no denying the sheer beauty and emotion at work. If you thought Barber's Adagio was unique piece as far as American music goes then think again!

Neil Horner

 



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