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CD Review

Arnold Rosner

Toccata 465

Orchestral Music, Volume 2

  • 5 Ko-ans for Orchestra, Op. 65 (1976)
  • Unraveling Dances, Op. 122 (2007)
  • The Parable of the Law, Op. 97 (1993)
Christopher Burchett, baritone
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Nick Palmer
Toccata Classics TOCC0465 72:09
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Hold on to your hats and wigs.

This is the third Rosner CD from Martin Anderson's Toccata Classics and producer Walter Simmons (Full Disclosure: Walter Simmons edited a book of mine). Here the program concentrates on virtuoso orchestral music. Rosner was born at the wrong time. His music, strongly traditional and traditionally modern, appeared in the Sixties and Seventies, dominated by total serialists and the avant-garde. Writers largely left him out of books and articles, mostly because they didn't know his work or found it old-hat without really listening to it – as they did with composers like Copland, Piston, and Bernstein. His music nevertheless didn't disappear entirely, thanks in no small part to the occasional recording on small labels and Internet reviews on sites like this one, and toward the end of his life interest in his work picked up.

Rosner's music derives from many sources: Hovhaness (he wrote one of the few dissertations on that composer's music), Bloch, even occasionally Hindemith, Bartók and Vaughan Williams. However, his artistic profile is strongly individual. That is, you don't usually mistake his music for anyone else's. His music emits passion and intellect and, in that sense, reminds me most closely of the work of Brahms. He shows a broad range of expression in his work, from Old Testament righteous anger to tenderness, from intellectual fascination with working out intricate patterns to witty gusto.

Unraveling Dances, a virtuoso orchestral piece, pays homage to Ravel's Bolero. It aims to entertain, posing few problems for a listener. A set of 11 variations, it plays with basic meters and orchestral combinations. Rosner, who studied mathematics, had a bit of a "puzzle mind" (he also played serious bridge). The music's meter keeps to 6/8 throughout, but each subsequent variation changes the phrasing by adding an eighth note, so we get the following succession of phrase lengths: 6/8, 7/8, 4/4, 9/8, 5/4, 11/8, 6/4, 13/8, and finally 7/4. Rosner wittily alludes to Bolero throughout and, according to producer Walter Simmons, thought of his score as a "mad Bolero" – I'd say a Bolero "under the influence." Like the Ravel, the score creates a long crescendo. It also begins with an obsessive rhythm, similar but not identical to the Ravel, on triple-tonguing muted trumpets rather than a snare drum. At various points, particularly toward the end, Ravel's idée fixe almost-but-not-quite appears, given a Rosnerian twist and the snare drums snap out the Rosner-Ravel rhythmic cell. The score, while not a bolero, nevertheless moves in "Spanish" triple time, and the opening in its orchestral sound reminds one of the "Malagueña" from the Rapsodie espaqnole. Rosner had an affinity for writing "Spanish" music, as Chabrier, Ravel, and Debussy had done before him. This is a terrific showpiece, as long as Bolero itself, and – if I may add – dances with greater forward impulse.

Big subjects attracted Rosner. His music shows great intellectual ambition. Kafka's "Parable of the Law" ("Vor dem Gesetz"), although published separately, belongs to his novel The Trial (Der Prozess. It's a typical "ya can't win" Kafka plot. A man seeks access to the law, but the gatekeeper tells him that he cannot be admitted "at this time." The man finally learns, at his death, that he was the only one who could have gone through and now that he's dead, the gate will shut forever. It's straight, not particularly lyrical prose, so there are practically no opportunities for melody for the singer. Rosner, however, uses a technique that goes all the way back to at least Mussorgsky and is particularly apparent in Bloch's opera Macbeth: a forceful declamation in the vocal part and most of the lyricism in the orchestra. Incidentally, this technique also appears in Rosner's operas Bontsche Zweig (based on the story by I. L. Peretz). I look on the piece as a bit of a compositional miracle – clearing every hurdle, compelling a listener to stay on the ride until the end, despite the solemnity of the subject matter and the lack of obvious opportunities for bon-bons. This work alone convinces me of Rosner's natural power.

The 5 Ko-ans for Orchestra raise interesting questions from the standpoint of title alone. A ko-an is a Buddhist saying or even story that tests a student's stage of enlightenment. Sometimes, people in the West translate it as a riddle, but that's not always the case. One thing a ko-an does is to challenge its hearer out of established habits of thought, as in "Where will you go after death?", the famous "What is the sound of one hand clapping?", and "Describe your face before you were born." What does any of this have to do with music? To some extent, ko-ans seek to separate the student from rational thought, and it's difficult for music to be irrational or even surrealist. However, music can indeed shake us out of our mental habits. Perhaps this is one possibility of the title. The work has five movements: "Music of Changes," "Ricercare," "Ostinato," "Music of Stillness," "Isorhythmic Motet." The second and fifth movements in particular reveal Rosner's fondness for Renaissance modalism and polyphony.

The "Music of Changes" I find the most evocative of the ko-ans. The school of "sudden enlightenment" Buddhism allows the master to deliver sudden shocks to students in the hope of jolting them to enlightnment. The music moves by sharp contrasts of character, dynamic, orchestration, and thematic material, often within a section. Inside of the first minute, it hits extremes of loud and soft, denseness and clarity. To me, this counts as a Rosner Concerto for Orchestra all by itself and requires a virtuoso ensemble.

"Ricercare" comes from a Latin word ("requirens," seeking) and refers to two types: the first, flourishing in the Renaissance and lingering into the Baroque, non-imitative, a form similar to a fantasia; the second, mainly Baroque, imitative and somewhat like a fugue. Rosner writes in the imitative style. The music is mystical, meditative, and evocative of certain moments in Bloch and Hovhaness. It begins quietly and builds to a mighty climax at roughly the middle, after which it falls back. The quiet moments especially emit a breathtaking beauty.

The "Ostinato" has cousins in certain movements of Holst ("Mars" from The Planets; the "Bacchanale" from the Choral Symphony; The Hymn of Jesus). The music possesses a remorseless 5/4 drive and electrifying syncopation. This movement physically thrills. As for "Music of Stillness": no interesting music is really static, and this music has plenty of interest. Instead, it depicts an inner state. It begins with an earworm, an idea based largely on parallel fifths, which lend a hollow, archaic, even timeless sound. This alternates with various chorales, which tend to raise the emotional temperature. Beautifully scored, it has both a Middle Ages and Middle Eastern flavor. What a Bruckner adagio does for others, this does for me.

An isorhythmic motet ("iso-" means "equal") was a musical form of the Middle Ages in which a rhythmic pattern recurred throughout a composition in at least one part. The melody to that rhythm may change, but the rhythm remains unaltered. Rosner taught music history and became attracted to the form, which he used in other compositions. Usually the cell in an isorhythmic motet runs a couple of measures at most. Here, however, once again Rosner's "puzzle mind" shows itself. His pattern runs 13 complicated measures, repeated 7 times, so a listener will unlikely hear it precisely. You might pay attention to some triplets that occur early on, which may help you sense the separation into sections. More important, I think, is the rhetorical progression of the piece – an alternation between muscular and subdued, and at a finer level, emotionally complex.

All three scores demand a top-flight orchestra, and fortunately not only does the London Philharmonic qualify, it has become one of the world's great "reading" orchestras. So here you have three tremendous scores well done in good sound. What are you waiting for?

Copyright © 2018, Steve Schwartz