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CD Review

Arnold Rosner

Toccata 408
  • Sonata #1 for Violin & Piano, Op. 18
  • Danses à la mode, Op. 101
  • Sonata for Bassoon & Piano, Op. 121
  • Sonata #2 for Cello & Piano "La Divina Commedia", Op. 89
Curtis Macomber, violin
Maxine Neuman, cello
David Richmond, bassoon
Margaret Kampmeier, piano
Carson Cooman, piano
Toccata Classics TOCC0408 67:50
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Chasing beauty.

Walter Simmons, who has spent much of his life shining light on obscure corners of American music, has come up with a winning disc of chamber music by Arnold Rosner. Standard musicological taxonomy divides American composers between the world wars as either Schoenbergians or Stravinskyites. But many composers – including Charles Ives, our first great one – don't fit comfortably in either cubbyhole. Furthermore, this classification has led to some serious neglect – groups of quite fine composers left out of musical history and research. Recently, this state of affairs has begun to right itself. Many musicologists now recognize a category of "mavericks," at least. Still, composers, mostly tonal, who stuck to and extended traditional paths rather than blazing new ones, still seem stuck on the ash heap of music history. How can we rescue Ernest Bloch, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Grazyna Bacewicz, Václav Nelhýbel, Lázló Lajtha, Alan Hovhaness, and a host of others when programming organizations stick to either the tried-and-true or the prestigious trendy?

The small independent label, of course, has provided much of the impetus to exploring the work of this group. For example, recognition and reception of Alan Hovhaness after the 1950s has come largely through recording rather than from live performance. Similarly, Rosner's recognition, such as it is, has come via recordings, almost all on enterprising small labels. Rosner doesn't fit the major pigeonholes of the postwar era – neither avant-garde, serial, aleatoric, or minimalist – a major reason for his obscurity. I love Rosner's music, to me a heady blend of passion and intellect. In this respect (and really almost only in this respect), he reminds me most of Brahms.

The idiom stands out for its modalism, an eschewal of traditional harmony. This trait causes you to hear traces of composers like Bloch, Nielsen, Hindemith, and Hovhaness (about whose music Rosner wrote his doctoral dissertation). However, the music remains stubbornly individual and identifiable as Rosner's own. In his liner notes, Walter Simmons points out that while the basis of Rosner's language never changed, the composer found new uses for it as he proceeded. We have an opportunity to hear that in the program on this CD, where the works come from many parts of Rosner's career.

Rosner wrote the Violin Sonata #1 in 1963 at age 18 and revised it in 2004. He revised many early works in light of later experience, so a true early work becomes something of a rarity. I've heard very early piano music, left untouched by the composer, probably because in his maturity he didn't think much of it (he felt his best piano writing came from his accompaniments and from the two-piano masterpiece Of Numbers and Bells). He used the piano mainly as a sketch pad. Those truly early pieces come across as plodding, although they contain startling moments of discovery. The Violin Sonata retains those epiphanies, but the argument proceeds in a highly sophisticated manner. The sophistication shows mainly in its argumentative treatment, related to classic forms, but applied with the freedom of a master. The work has three movements – fast, slow, fast.

The first movement holds together mainly through a vigorous Hindemithian rhythm, although the harmonies derive from Hovhaness's modalism (Rosner wrote his doctoral thesis on the music of Alan Hovhaness). Modulations are often by thirds, rather than the usual fourths and fifths. The movement takes the shape of an odd sonata, with the exposition of the second subject subsumed in the development. I perhaps mistakenly speak of subjects, since Rosner really recombines smaller bits, thematic molecules, in a way. The movement proceeds mainly contrapuntally, with moments that lean toward breaking into fugue, but never do. It grabs your attention and holds it, like a great oration. Somehow, its brief length belies its considerable impact.

The second movement, a song structure, comes closest to Hovhaness in its idiom and etherealness. In that sense, it comes nearest to juvenilia. One senses the attempt to make each note beautiful, also a mark of very young composers. The music often features what I call "magic" chords, chord progressions full of the usual major and minor chords, but strung together in unprecedented ways – an extraordinary example, perhaps, the opening string chords of the Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The movement achieves an aching beauty.

Rosner lets things rip from the get-go, as the solo violin announces a dashing tarantella in the finale. The movement lies closest to a classical sonata-rondo. The first episode is a 3-part fughetta. The second substantially varies some material of the first, especially the main idea, and strikes a listener as a transitional passage. Rosner masterfully builds and lessens intensity at just the right moments so he can build again. It's a wild ride of a movement.

I don't know why it should be so, but really good works for solo melody instruments run rare on the ground. Bach, of course, stands at the pinnacle in this form, but some very fine technicians indeed – including Reger, Hindemith, and Britten – have foundered. Often, they lose the thread of the music, and so the piece degenerates into mere notes. Rosner's Danses à la mode for solo cello belong to those few exceptional works that succeed. They haven't the monumentality of Bach's suites or Kodály's Sonata for cello solo, and Rosner didn't intend them to. The title wittily plays on ">à la mode," "mode" referring to the type of dances, the different musical modes, and the dessert-like nature of the piece. However, although the suite has the nature of a divertissement, it still demands a certain virtuosity from the cellist. The suite has four movements: "À la Greque," "Raga," "Sarabande," and "Musique du Nord."

"À la Greque" supposedly takes off from Greek folk music, of which I don't know enough to comment. The only thing I can say is that it doesn't sound much like Theodorakis's Zorba the Greek. It moves to a vigorous 7-beat measure, as opposed to 3- or 4-, with a highly ornamented melodic line. In "Raga," the cello imitates a classical Indian ensemble, with melodies against drones, melodic slides, and an obsessive concentration on bits of an idea. Rosner gives you everything but the tabla.

A sarabande is a Baroque dance in triple time where the stress of the measure falls (unusually) on the second beat rather than the first. Rosner's movement, gravely beautiful, spins out a long line with such expressive articulations as double-stops (more than one note sounding at the same time) and pizzicato (plucking the strings, rather than bowing them). For me, this movement demands the most concentrated attention from the listener. Its brevity belies its depth. The suite ends with the lively "Musique du Nord," where Rosner tips his hat to Scandinavian fiddles and pieces like the fast parts of Grieg's "Wedding Day at Troldhaugen."

Like Hindemith, Rosner had wanted to write a chamber work for every standard instrument of the orchestra. He had a few to go before he died. Simmons points out that as Rosner proceeded, his musical idiom moved from pure modal lyricism to an admission of more chromatic elements and often a darker emotional palette. Both of these show up in the late Sonata for Bassoon (2006). Two somber slow movements sandwich a dark scherzo.

The sonata opens with a long, twisty line for the solo bassoon. The piano enters with an echo of it, and from there the movement develops as a fantasia, continually varying a short set of ideas, notably an half-step up or down from which a variety of tunes spring. Toward the end, the music goes into fugato and then a hymn before a recapitulation of sorts brings the movement to a close.

The scherzo, a darkly sardonic tarantella, moves in the usual quick 6/8. However, it does show an unusual feature. All of the bassoon's material, with a strong flavor of the Phrygian scale (E to e' on the white notes of the piano) and featuring prominent half-steps, comes from its opening measures, while the piano keeps introducing new ideas against which the bassoon comments.

Simmons points out the unusual structure of the lento finale, but it strikes me as even more complex than he makes out. You can describe it architecturally as A B A coda, and rhetorically also as A B A. However, the B sections don't line up. It begins with a chromatic line on the bassoon where, as in the first movement solo bassoon opening, the half-step again becomes a major building block. The piano enters to contribute to a three-part canon on the bassoon material. Rosner then breaks up the thematic elements of the canon and develops each fragment with, as Simmons points out, "special attention to the rising and falling minor seconds." The movement begins to wind down, and this time the piano leads off with the canon material, after which we get a quiet coda which takes us to the end. Bassoonists don't often get dedicated chamber music this musically complex or, frankly, this beautiful.

Rosner had a mind that liked puzzles and complication, shown by his formal study of mathematics and his fondness for the manipulations of gematria and serious bridge. To some extent, his Cello Sonata #2 reflects this. He originally wrote it without its subtitle, "La Divina Commedia". Nobody knows why he added it, since he never explained why. However, the sonata's success doesn't depend on an extramusical connection. It can move you even if you've never heard of Dante.

The first movement, structurally unusual, is based on isorhythmic motet, a form popular in the Middle Ages. Early on, composers wanted ways to organize a work, to curb the impulse of music to dissolve into a nattering mess. The Baroque passacaglia and fugue, the Classical sonata and rondo, even Schoenberg's tone series all represent this impulse. The isorhythmic motet unifies by constructing a piece around periodic repetitions of a basic, unvarying rhythm ("isorhythm" or "same rhythm"). Notes may change, but not the rhythm. Most of these cells last only one or two measures. Rosner, however, constructs a complex ten-measure cell which he repeats ten times. I honestly admit I could only dimly follow this without a score, but I have no reason to doubt Walter Simmons. Since I listen without first reading liner notes, it escaped me altogether, and I heard it as a passionate, Old Testament meditation like Bloch's Schelomo, but more tightly put together. It sings grandly, epically.

The second movement strikes me as a middle eastern night-song. It consists of four main sections, separated by quick, brief dance episodes in neo-classical rhythms but modal harmonies. In the first section, the cello spins out an arabesque line, while the piano fills in with an open-fifth drone. In the second section, the roles reverse: the cello takes up the drone, while the piano sings. The third sounds like a recapitulation of the first, highly abridged. After its dance, the solo cello plays both the drone and the arabesque simultaneously, followed by the piano doing the same. The movement ends quietly.

Rosner orchestrated the finale on a commission from the Albany Symphony Orchestra and titled that work A Millenium Overture, which I have reviewed. You can read my description here. The reservations I expressed about this movement as a standalone piece disappear once it appears in its original context. Indeed, I believe the sonata vindicates my judgment. The third movement perfectly caps the previous two. I've called Rosner's first cello sonata a masterpiece. The second sonata lives up to the first.

I praise these performers. Rosner – to me, a bit like Brahms in this respect – presents many interpretive challenges, and all the players commit to championing the music. If I single out David Richmond and Carson Cooman in the Bassoon Sonata, it's because I think that not only do they have the most difficult job in clarifying the music, but also because they go beyond to offer a highly dramatic reading.

If you want to hear an idiosyncratic take on tonality and a powerful individual voice with a mastery of rhetoric and architecture, give Rosner a try.

Copyright © 2018, Steve Schwartz