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CD Review

Arnold Rosner

Orchestral Music - Volume 1

  • a Millennium Overture, Op. 112
  • a Sephardic Rhapsody, Op. 95
  • Concerto for 2 Trumpets, Strings, and Timpani, Op. 107 1,2
  • The Tragedy of Queen Jane, Op. 78 2
1 Robert Murray, Jonathan Martin, trumpets
1 Glenn Northern, timpani
Altoona Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Palmer
2 Owensboro Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Palmer
Albany TROY548 74:55
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Raptured out.

I've often expressed my bewilderment at the fact that major orchestras haven't rushed to record Arnold Rosner's music. To me, he's one of the best now writing. Almost everything I've heard rings for me with the sound of a classic. I might as well admit I've found exactly two pieces in all the Rosner I've listened to I haven't cared for, but Beethoven wrote at least two pieces I don't care for. On the other hand, I see little sense obsessing over the work I don't like at the expense of that work I love.

You can hear many influences in Rosner: Bloch, Hovhaness, perhaps even Vaughan Williams. All this really means is that these composers use a modally-tinged idiom, if not actual modes. Rosner is sometimes free, sometimes strict with his modal writing. However, the artistic personality he reminds me most of is, believe it or not, Brahms. Both composers have tremendous musical intellect and also take pains to hide the "head work" in service of emotional expression. Rosner can play rhythmic and contrapuntal games worthy of Elliott Carter, but he keeps that aspect of his composing so far in the background that you may not even be aware of the game being played. All this is to say that while Rosner knows how to build a piece, he doesn't necessarily rub your nose in the blueprints.

I first heard Rosner's music by accident. I had bought a CD for one particular work and a piece by Rosner happened to come along for the ride - his Responses, Hosanna, and Fugue, Op. 67 (Harmonia Mundi France, HMU906012, NLA; reissued on Kleos 5119), a masterpiece for multiple string choirs. Since then, it's been mainly chamber works. I don't complain, exactly. I'm quite grateful for any Rosner that comes my way. But this says a lot about the contemporary music scene in the United States. Mostly chamber music gets recorded, because orchestral music costs more to record. Consequently, I'm doubly grateful for a CD of Rosner's orchestral music, and the designation "Volume 1" makes my heart go pit-a-pat.

All four works in this volume have strong individual identities. They indicate without fully revealing Rosner's expressive range. a Millennium Overture is kind of an odd duck, due mainly to the circumstances of its composition. The conductor David Amos, a champion of Rosner (he conducted the Harmonia Mundi disc), had asked for a work, and Rosner wanted to oblige. However, the pressure of other commitments prevented the composer from writing a brand-new piece, and so he orchestrated the finale to his second cello sonata, which I haven't heard (the first, a flat-out masterpiece). This one little bit of extraneous information kind of got in my way. I wanted to know how the piece came off in its original context. On its own, it's quite fine, but it seems to me the end of a journey, rather than the entire journey. I can't say whether I would have felt the same way if I hadn't known. The music is muscular, rather than light, and witty in its own way, rather than in, say, Mozart's or Beethoven's way. The emphasis on fourths and fifths puts me in mind of Hindemith or Holmboe, while the counterpoint serves mainly to ratchet up the rhythmic intensity, a strong Hindemith trait. But it doesn't really sound like Hindemith, or indeed like anyone else. Rosner, like Prokofieff or Vaughan Williams, has his own voice - no small feat.

You may find a Sephardic Rhapsody somewhat misnamed, if you've expected something absolutely freewheeling or merely sequential. Rosner instead explores the melodic, contrapuntal, and harmonic implications of at least one unusual (to me, anyway) mode. As a listener, I experience great satisfaction in this piece - that the composer has said everything essential. In his liner notes to the CD, Rosner explains very well what he's up to technically. But, again, "technically" isn't the point. What one feels is a gorgeous, long-breathing melody that lifts you up. The melody twists and turns and varies, with plenty of interplay among soloists (especially a soaring trumpet), but it seems all of a piece nevertheless. About half-way through, the music changes to a vigorous fugato. Rosner points out the binary structure of most rhapsodies - at least the ones by Liszt, Enescu, and Bartók - song followed by dance. Rosner keeps to this general plan, although the fugato serves as an introduction to the dance proper, an ecstatic toe-tapper in seven quick pulses. There's a strong Middle Eastern "tinge," to borrow a term from Jelly Roll Morton, throughout the piece, and the work ends with a terrific build-up for a standing ovation.

Rosner extracted the suite The Tragedy of Queen Jane from his opera The Chronicle of Nine (based on Lady Jane Grey's nine-day reign), written about twenty years ago and unperformed to this day. Given the current dismal level of opera in the United States, the act of composing one seems Quixotic, to say the least, especially without a prestigious foundation behind you. But Rosner has written at least one other opera, a shortie on the Yiddish shaggy-dog story "Bonstche Schweig," which has been performed in an unstaged piano-vocal reduction (even the number of singers was reduced). Perhaps someone will stage both Bontsche and Chronicle. Maybe next year in Jerusalem, as the saying goes. The Queen Jane suite invokes Renaissance music and genres in Rosner's own way. Although undoubtedly dramatic music, however, it doesn't seem music for drama. The analogy again is Brahms. One can't deny the conflict in Brahms' music, but it doesn't seem the music of a stage dramatist: one interested in character and cross-purposes and even irony. Rosner's (and Brahms') music seems to me primarily lyrical in impulse. Yet a hearing of The Chronicle might dispel that impression as the excerpts take on a different function in the context of the opera itself. As it stands, the suite, very beautiful on its own, suggests a composer whose vision is too big for the stage and for characters. Of four strong movements, my favorite is "Masque," an exquisite little suite-within-suite of Renaissance-like dances. In its scope, you'd have to go to something like the "Courtly Dances" from Britten's Gloriana.

The concerto for 2 trumpets and timpani impresses me the most of the works on the program. It's the most tightly-written and complex, and it shows Rosner stretching his expressive range without abandoning his original voice. It evokes the rhythmic vigor of Baroque music, particularly in the first movement, where the solo trumpets bounce off one another. Harmonically, it's more chromatic and less modal than usual in Rosner. But the composer not only retains his usual power, he increases it. I must say that Rosner surprises even me with the slow movement, one of the finest among those works I've heard. It's the usual gambit of the long arch, but Rosner, unlike many, can sustain the span he has designed. It may dawn on you (if you don't cheat and read the liner notes first) that it's also a passacaglia, a series of variations over a ground bass. Such is Rosner's skill in constructing the bass line and in "overlapping" the variations, however, that you will more likely experience it as a song of growing intensity. Although the song sounds complex (both in its notes and in the emotions it stirs), as an act of singing it sounds absolutely "natural." The finale burns down the barn with sennets and tuckets from the trumpets, echoed rhythmically by the timpani. I think the concerto a major work, not only for Rosner, but for anybody.

The performances are all at least acceptable and, in every case but the concerto, even quite fine. I prefer, for example, Palmer's reading of the "Dirge" movement (Prélude to Act II) of the Queen Jane suite to David Amos's on Laurel LR-849CD, and Amos is no slouch. Palmer shapes the movement more lucidly, however. He conveys a clearer sense of the whole. Believe it or not, the Owensboro Symphony outplays the Jerusalem Symphony (surprised the earwax out of me), and the sound is better, besides. The Altoona players are just as good, but I have no direct piece-by-piece comparison in their case. However, the concerto demands more of Owensboro. The trumpet soloists are wonderful and the strings good enough (although here and there one wishes for a richer sound). The timpanist, however, sounds tentative throughout, as if afraid to overwhelm the trumpeters. It might be a mere matter of microphone placement or the ambience of the hall. At any rate, he sounds as if someone buried him in the front-hall closet, behind the heavy winter coats. For a first recording, however, this is a more-than-credible account. It's certainly good enough to convey the stature of the concerto, a piece that demands several readings before it comes into full focus.

Copyright © 2002, Steve Schwartz