Rochberg's Piano Music On Naxos -- 4
Beyond a handful of famous works, American art music for solo piano remains surprisingly unexplored. The "American Classics" series of the budget-priced Naxos label offers an excellent entry point to American piano music, as to much else. In particular, Naxos is in the midst of releasing the too little known piano music of the American composer George Rochberg (1918 - 2005) in a series of 5 CDs performed alternately by Sally Pinkas or her husband, Evan Hirsch. This CD, the fourth in the Naxos series, features Pinkas performing three widely-spaced Rochberg compositions dating from 1941, 1971, and 1984. The recording dates from 1996-1997 and was originally released on the small Gasparo label. It is valuable to have this music readily accessible on Naxos.
Rochberg's piano music spans five decades and many musical styles. Rochberg originally attained fame as a serial composer, but he abandoned atonality in favor of a tough, romantic style of composition in the mid 1960s. From its beginnings to its end, Rochberg's music is highly eclectic and draws and a variety of musical idioms.
The most appealing of the three works on this CD is the "Carnival Music" dating from 1971. It is a five-movement suite of about 27 minutes duration. (In spite of the title, there is little overt resemblance to Robert Schumann's "Carnaval".) Rochberg's music includes both popular American idioms and baroque and romantic classicism in an almost indiscriminate fashion. The suite opens with a "Fanfare and March" which after some solemn opening chords becomes a lively American circus march. The second movement "blues" is entirely in the American blues idiom, with a slow draggy theme and blues tremolos that reminded me of the great Chicago blues pianist, Jimmy Yancy. The finale, "Toccata Rag" also has a blues feel in the language of American ragtime. The music offers direct quotes of Scott Joplin in places. The middle movements, the slow reflective "largo doloroso", and the fourth movement, marked "Sfumato" are more classically oriented. The latter movement quotes extensively from two disparate sources: Brahms' capriccio, opus 76 no. 8, and the ninth of Bach's Three Part Inventions. Listeners who know or have the scores to these works will enjoy tracing them in Rochberg. All told, the "Carnival Music" is a lively, diverse work in an American idiom.
In 1984, Rochberg composed a series called "Four Short Sonatas." These short pieces are written in the style of "hard romanticism" to which Rochberg turned after the death of his son in the 1960s. Each of the short pieces is self-contained, but together the set of four makes up the components of a classical sonata. The opening "Poco allegro piacevole" is a short work with two contrasting themes, a development section and a recapitulation. The second short sonata "Molto rubato" also serves as a slow movement for a longer work. It is alternately marked "sad" and "violent". The third movement "allegro assai" is a very brief, quicksilver scherzo while the final "Presto" is heavily blocked, chordal, and in the words of Pinkas's liner notes "brutal".
The final work on this CD is also the longest and the earliest. As a young man of 23 in 1941, Rochberg composed his "Variations on an Original Theme" and gave the work its first public performance. In 1969, Rochberg returned to the composition, edited it slightly, and restored two of the variations he had earlier cut from the already lengthy score. It is tempting to see this early work as a student piece. It is written in a traditional late romantic musical voice which does not go beyond anything that Brahms or an earlier composer might have written. But the music is beautiful in its own right. Rochberg was right to save it for future listeners. The work opens with a sad, slow theme in two separate parts. The theme can be traced easily in each of the twelve variations which follow. The variations already show Rochberg's eclecticism and his ability to draw from the past, as each variation is in a distinct musical form, drawing on both the romantic and the baroque (e.g., Scherzo, Etude, Capriccio, Toccata, Arabesque, Rhapsody, Ballade, Gigue, Nocturne, Chorale, Ricercare, Intermezzo).The work concludes with a rousing finale. Although there is nothing groundbreaking in this work, it is delightful to hear. It is an impressive accomplishment by a fledgling composer.
Adventurous listeners wanting to explore American piano music will enjoy this CD and its companions. I am looking forward to the fifth and final release in the Naxos series of Rochberg's piano music.
Total time: 68:45