Rochberg's Piano Music On Naxos -- 2
The American Classics series of the budget-priced Naxos label offers an outstanding way to get to know American art music. Naxos is in the process of releasing five CDs of the complete piano music of George Rochberg (1918 -- 2005), a composer I have come to love through earlier CDs in the American classics series. This, the second CD of the Rochberg piano series, is a reissue of an earlier CD on the Gasparo label performed by pianist Evan Hirsch, a specialist in Rochberg's music. The earlier CD, also a reissue of a Gasparo CD, featured Hirsch and his wife, Sally Pinkas, performing Rochberg's late, highly metaphysical work for two pianos, "Circles of Fire." On this CD, Hirsch performs three compositions spanning Rochberg's long career as a composer. Hirsch also wrote the highly informative performance notes for the album. My good Amazon friend, Dr Scott Morrison, has written a wonderfully detailed and enthusiastic review of this CD. My thoughts follow.
The CD opens with Rochberg's "Twelve Bagatelles" dating from 1952. The composer was always conscious of his musical predecessors, and these little works show the influence of Beethoven and Schoenberg. Together with his sonatas and variations, Beethoven composed several sets of bagatelles or "trifles", including two sets during his final compositional period. Rochberg follows in Beethoven's path. Rochberg's Bagatelles also owe a great deal to Schoenberg, as he writes in the atonal, twelve-tone and musically concentrated style developed by this pioneering 20th Century composer. (Rochberg would later make a sharp break with serialism.) Rochberg's bagatelles range in length from about 30 seconds to just in excess of two minutes and exhibit a variety of emotional moods from the introspective and sad to the jocose. There are several short dances and marches in the set. The pieces are so short that their serialism does not put much of a strain on the listener. The highpoints of this set are the three somewhat extended and introspective bagatelles marked "Quasi parlando" (no. 5), "Teneramente e liricamente" (no. 7) and "Intenso, con un sentimento di destino". (no. 9)
Rochberg frequently would revise and rework his compositions over the course of many years. The first two of his "Three Elegaic Pieces" were composed in the 1940s and revised in the late 1990's when Rochberg was a very different composer. The last of the three elegies dates from 1998 and is Rochberg's final composition for the piano. The elegies make a beautiful, meditative, and highly varied set. Each of the three pieces has a romantic cast, and the mood for each work is set by a short verse which Rochberg appends to his score. The first elegy is sad and, for the most part, reserved, with the introductory verse speaking sparely of the death of a queen. The second short and melancholy elegy is prefaced by a quotation from the composer's son Paul who died in his 20s. The poem speaks of the inevitability of death and of the circular nature of time. The final, late elegy begins with a text from Shakespeare's King Lear. It is craggy, heavily chorded, and of a resigned character.
The final work on this CD, the three-movement Sonata Seria, also occupied Rochberg for a lengthy period. Originally composed in 1948, Rochberg had second thoughts and revised the work heavily in the 1950s. Then, in the late 1990's Rochberg had third thoughts and decided he liked his original version of the piece better after all. He went back to the original work of 1948 with modest edits. As he left it, the Sonata Seria, is a tough, granitic work of modernism which moves somewhere between a tonal and an atonal musical language. The sonata opens with a virtuosic difficult movement which contrasts a rapid, percussive main theme with a more lyrical response, in the manner of a classical sonata. The second movement is a sad and lyrical two-part canon while the third movement combines the counterpoint of the middle movement with the emotional character of the opening. It consists of a three-part fugue which begins and ends severely while surrounding a gentler middle section. This is a tough-minded challenging modern sonata.
This CD is well-recorded. Hirsch obviously knows and understands Rochberg's music. Congratulations to Hirsch and to Naxos for making Rochberg's piano music accessible. I am looking forward to the further releases in the series.