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CD Review

George Rochberg

Naxos 8.559214

Symphony #1

Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Lyndon-Gee
Naxos 8.559214 DDD 64:15
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This is among the more important releases in Naxos' "American Classics" series. George Rochberg began writing his First Symphony in 1948, while he was still a composition student at the Curtis Institute of Music. The symphony cost him considerable effort. A public performance was a long time in coming – eight years to be exact – and even then, the symphony was not given in complete form. In 1977, Rochberg returned to this imposing work, primarily to refine its orchestration. Then, in 2002, in anticipation of the concerts that would lead to the present recording, Rochberg extensively revised the work again. This recording, then, is the first of the symphony in its final form, and so it supersedes the previous one on Louisville First Edition (which, in any case, seems no longer to be available). The second ("Night Music") and third ("Capriccio") movements have had, at times, a life of their own away from the symphony, but here they have been restored to their rightful places.

Rochberg's experiences in World War Two (he served as a captain at the Battle of the Bulge) and his interest in imprinting serialist composition techniques with a stamp that was both personal and American came to a head in his Second Symphony, a watershed work in his oeuvre. There's nothing about the First Symphony that says "not quite there," however. This is an amazingly assured, mature, personal, and daring work – unmistakably American, and unmistakably the work of George Rochberg, although the next several decades would take him in many unexpected directions. Rochberg claims to have had different aspects of Schoenberg and Stravinsky in mind as he composed it. Furthermore, "Never far from my thoughts were Beethoven's Eroica and Ninth, [and] Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique." Leopold Mannes, one of Rochberg's composition teachers, called it the craziest music he had ever seen, and Eugene Ormandy (who conducted that first, incomplete performance in 1958) took off the gloves and commented tartly, "Far be it from me, a mere conductor, to tell a composer how he should write his music." (These quotes are taken from conductor Lyndon-Gee's excellent booklet note, which demonstrates – as if the recording were not enough! – his dedication to Rochberg and his music.) Despite the pervasive mood of struggle in this symphony, it is clear that the fight that's being fought is a good one, and the victory that is achieved after 64 minutes is hard-earned and worthwhile. Open-minded listeners are in for quite a ride with this work.

Lyndon-Gee conducts this music passionately, never letting the tension slip, and making the most of the atmosphere in "Night Music," and the hairpin turns in "Capriccio." The Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra, also no stranger to Rochberg's music, gives this symphony not only its requisite grandeur and energy, but also a sense of control. In no way does this recording sound like a run-through: both the conductor and the musicians are deeply involved. The engineering, courtesy of the Saarländischer Rundfunk, is big and bold, like the symphony itself.

Copyright © 2008 by Raymond Tuttle

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