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CD Review

Arnold Rosner

Chamber Music - Volume 2

  • String Quartet #2 in a
  • String Quartet #3
  • String Quartet #5 in d
  • Duet for Violas
Ad Hoc String Quartet
Diedre Buckley & Mark Ottesen, violas
Albany TROY210
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Profound and passionate. A master.

I don't know why the string quartet should be so tough for composers. After all, they have to worry about usually only four lines of music. Its origins lie in social music-making - the viol consort - and even the great examples of that literature come across as far more "relaxed" than, say, Brahms' contributions. Nevertheless, it gives many composers fits, despite such apparent "naturals" as Shostakovich, Bartók, and Maconchy. Perhaps Mozart and Beethoven raised the emotional and artistic stakes - string quartet as psychological probe - to the point where the string quartet has become the prestige genre in the current musical cultural hierarchy.

I have raved about Rosner's music before (Albany TROY163), and I'll do so again. I think of him as a major composer, though I know even most hard-core classical music fans will say "Who?" when I mention him. Major, of course, does not mean well-known. His music packs a huge emotional wallop, and it's meticulously well-written besides. He writes gorgeous, powerful, long-breathed tunes. The craft serves the message to the point where it effaces itself almost completely. Listening to a Rosner work is like hearing the music of Orpheus: it seems like one complete, spontaneous, and overwhelming song. Of course, unless one really is Orpheus, there has to be a tremendous amount of thought and craft to carry this kind of thing off. Rosner takes a dangerous and difficult artistic path - saying clearly and directly what he means and working on a grand emotional scale without stepping over into the grandiose. Consequently, his material had better withstand the scrutiny that it necessarily invites. You may not like what Rosner does (and I find it hard to imagine a listener who wouldn't), but you always know where you are in his music.

I heard my first Rosner work by accident. I bought a CD for another piece, and Rosner happened to be on it. I felt the sudden lightning flash snap through me that I usually only got from Bach, the Verdi Requiem, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, Mahler's third, Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia, Bloch's Schelomo and Avodath Hakodesh, Barber's Violin Concerto, or Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. This is just to say that Rosner's music knocks me off my pins and, on repeated hearings, continues to do so. With Rosner, unlike most new work I like, I never begin with "how interesting" and then "grow into the marriage." I begin with "Take me, I'm yours!" The works on this CD are no exception.

Rosner wrote his second string quartet while he was probably still in high school. I suspect most people back then were like me: a hormonal cocktail, volatile as a nest of hornets. Rosner wrote not just any string quartet, but one that shows him a master of the genre. It's a one-movement deal, putting a small number of motives through many changes and in the process building four mini-movements of differing character from that tiny set. Again, I could detail sustained passages of sheer skill, but it's almost beside the point. Mainly, Rosner's music speaks and eloquently. The main idea suggests a chorale, which could easily have become pretty stale but somehow never does. I have no idea what he goes through to write his works, but the music sounds as if it encounters no hitch at all from his brain to his pencil.

Two years later, not even out of his teens, Rosner had also written a third quartet, although he revised it almost thirty years later. It's another big work, this time with two substantial movements, separated by a relatively lighter interlude. The idiom manages to encompass more psychically complex territory, especially in the first movement, although even here we tend to encounter a chorale as the emotional climax. The interlude dances, and Rosner uses his counterpoint to generate rhythmic fun. I once worried that Rosner might not be capable of this kind of grace, that he had to be the Old Testament Prophet or nothing, but this movement and the third shows that he doesn't have to preach all the time. He manages to lighten up and keep his particular musical beauty - difficult as the devil and neatly done. The finale, a large ternary structure, dances and sings. The variety of texture and in particular the near-orchestral sumptuousness of some of the sonorities he gets from only four string players amaze me.

With the fifth quartet, Rosner again presents us one large movement, this time in two large sections, slow-fast, introduction and moto perpetuo allegro. That description, however, doesn't give the first part its due. It strikes me as Rosner's profound connection with his Jewish roots, although Rosner himself likens it to medieval organum. It reminds me of passages of Bloch, as much of Rosner's music does - but the best of Bloch, without the occasional bathos and late nineteenth-century overloading of that master. If one needs influences, one can do much worse. The allegro builds on little ostinato patterns. The danger of the method is that the pattern overwhelms whatever real argument the music presents. Minimalism, which uses moto perpetuo as its main device, doesn't worry about this, since the pattern and its slow variation over time largely becomes the musical point. However, Rosner plays a different hand. From the near-cantorial chant of the opening, the music begins to move - again, lightly - over its musical argument, imperceptibly deepening into passionate outcry. You find yourself in the middle of it without quite realizing how you got there, and yet it works. After a fade in which the opening cantorial ideas sound again, Rosner starts up and ends with a majesterial fugal passage. This quartet differs from the second also in the direct expression of its ideas. Rosner's music seems always to have been lean, but now it's leaner. His temptation to digress, while never great, he has nevertheless reined in.

Rosner wrote his viola duet in gratitude to two performers who helped get his fourth quartet performed and recorded. Like Ravel and Honegger in their string duets, Rosner wants to trick the ear into hearing more instruments than are really there, a gambit as old as Vivaldi and Telemann. Ravel and Honegger, however, make things a little easier for themselves by writing for violin and cello, which give the composers a wide range with a decent amount of overlap to exploit ambiguities. Rosner takes a much harder route. If the range of the viola makes writing exciting music difficult - you automatically give up the cheap thrills of screaming highs and rich lows - think about writing for two of them together. Rosner keeps up interest by varying the texture and, again, multiplying the lines of real counterpoint. The duet is again one movement, divided slow-fast, with the slow portion constituting the bulk of the work. It seems easier to write counterpoint for a slow tempo, but Rosner dispels that notion by staying with the game in the fast conclusion as well. Again, the material of the second section derives from the first. In fact, to me the eight-minute work seems monothematic. It's probably a gas as well as difficult to play and emotionally substantial to hear.

The name Ad Hoc String Quartet implies a pick-up group, but the liner notes make it clear that these folks play together a lot, as does (by the way) their performance. Rosner does not spare his players, technically or intellectually. AHSQ give us vivid readings that show they have the works' measure. The Duet seems slightly tentative to me, but only slightly. There's nothing horrible about the performance, which does convey the stature of the piece. On the other hand, the course of the music seems slightly muddy and unsettled, as if the players didn't quite know what to do with certain passages. At times, I get the same impression with the Perlman, Ma, and Ax trio. Nevertheless, violists Buckley (a member of the AHSQ) and Ottesen deliver a thoroughly creditable effort.

Again, praise to producer John Proffitt not only for his superb taste in finding little-known music, but for the care he puts into selecting performers and into the recording process itself. None of his discs has disappointed or bored me.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz