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Arnold ROSNER (1945–2013)
Orchestral Music - Volume Two
Five Ko-ans for Orchestra, Op. 65 (1976) [32:18]
Unraveling Dances, Op. 122 (2007) [15:57]
The Parable of the Law, Op. 97 (1993) [23:45]
Christopher Burchett (baritone) (Parable)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Nick Palmer
rec. 2017, Abbey Road Studios, London

This is the second of Toccata's blessed progression of discs of orchestral music by New York-based Arnold Rosner. You can find reviews of Volume One here and here. Toccata have also issued a chamber music disc. Rosner wrote serious tonal music and the performances on this disc and its recording qualities are a superb compliment to Rosner's achievement. There is nothing circus-like, trivial or superficial in his output. Even his Millenium Overture packs a far from cheap punch - imposing and sturdy.

The Five Ko-ans for Orchestra comprise No. 1 Music of Changes, No. 2 Ricercare, No. 3 Ostinato, No. 4 Music of Stillness and No. 5 Isorhythmic Motet. They are like a sequence of Samuel Barber's essays yet distinguished by this composer's trademark incessant persistence and cool limpidity. These qualities are juxtaposed with passages that are gaunt, statuesque and imposing. The music is not at all ascetic: witness the Respighian horn whoops in the first of the Ko-ans and the brief climactic pages in the Fourth Ko-an. Rosner's writing throughout these five separately tracked pieces is grand. Indeed, all three works on this disc are further testimony that a Rosner score could have been written by no-one else. That is not to say that certain facets of his language do not touch base with other composers. Vaughan Williams is one reference point but Rosner has his own spare yet dynamic style. Few composers' music can attain the feeling that he evokes of a lonely listener in some temple looking up giddily at the capitals of the towering columns. That sense of being lost in the moment - an intensity of today's mindfulness. The Third Ko-an, the shortest of the five, pummels away rapidly and with a motoric power that appears indefatigable. The Fourth is a more peaceful essay - relaxed repose dominated by woodwind solos. The valedictory Fifth ends with a drift into hard-won silence. A Ko-an is defined by Rosner as "a riddle, action, remark or dialogue not comprehensible by rational understanding but conducive to intense or prolonged meditation."

The other works here include the vigorous 16-minute Unraveling Dances. This was his final orchestral work. Carson Cooman, a composer closely linked with Rosner, wrote in a note with the score that the Dances being unravelled draw on the bolero and Rosner's "own experiences of heart arrythmia". Through eleven variations the composer draws on familiar musical references: Renaissance, Baroque and Middle Eastern. The writing is richly coloured and almost extravagantly joyful use is made of the orchestra. The work rises to a formidable conclusion of dancing grandeur - Rosner's aural window opened out onto the music of the spheres.

The disc finishes with the 24-minute setting of Kafka’s The Parable of the Law for baritone and orchestra. The words set are reproduced in Toccata's booklet. The music is hieratic, dramatic and dark-hued. A typically striking introduction commands by quiet and confident insinuation. Soon the slightly mournful baritone, Christopher Burchett, enters, singing of his long and ultimately unsuccessful wait and pleading for entry to "The Law". The music is sombre, chiming and mesmeric as befits the Kafka text but rises to fury and sneering as the singer presses his bootless case for entry. There is something of RVW's Pilgrim about the man trying, without success, to persuade The Doorkeeper to permit him access to The Law. The words are less sung and more spoken in hopelessness at 13:00. Later on, Burchett superbly shadows the orchestra in a pitch of roiling excitement although the final pages spell deep peace.

The liner-notes are by none other than Walter Simmons who has done so much for US composers of the generations beyond Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein. He has been a doughty advocate of Rosner's music as he has also of Schuman, Persichetti, Mennin, Barber, Bloch, Creston, Flagello, Giannini and Hanson. He is also the producer of this disc. I just hope that there are later volumes.

These are, quite naturally, first recordings. It is good to see the name of conductor Nicholas Palmer on this disc. He has been a practical advocate for Rosner for many years; witness the Albany orchestral disc from the early 2000s.

Rob Barnett



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