ROSNER: String Quartets: No. 2, Op. 19; No. 3, Op. 32; No. 5, Op. 66. Duet for Violas, Op. 94

ROSNER: String Quartets: No. 2, Op. 19; No. 3, Op. 32; No. 5, Op. 66. Duet for Violas, Op. 94. Ad Hoc String Quartet (Paul Vanderwerf, David Belden, violins; Diedre Buckley, viola; James Fellenbaum, cello); Mark Ottesen, viola. ALBANY TROY210 [DDD]; 66:32. Produced by John Gladney Proffitt.

The string quartet is a particularly revealing medium through which to examine a composer’s methods. Thus this new release offers a fascinating perspective on the compositional development of Arnold Rosner. As the opus numbers suggest, the works span quite a few years, the earliest dating from 1963, when Rosner was 17 and had yet to undertake formal study in composition, and the latest from 1991, when he was 46. Observing what elements remain constant throughout and what elements have changed provides considerable insight into the fundamental aesthetic intentions and priorities of this remarkable figure, who has amassed one of the most unusual and idiosyncratic bodies of work of any American composer of his generation (see interview in Fanfare 14:5, pp. 414ff).

As those who have already heard and read about his music are aware, Rosner carved out a unique language for himself at a rather young age, vehemently rejecting the serialism that was fashionable when he was a student, along with every other “ism” that has come along since then, as well as much of the sophisticated development through which tonal composition has evolved during the past three hundred years. What he has devised instead is a language oriented chiefly around triadic harmony unencumbered by the obligations of tonal relationships. That is, the hierarchical functions through which chords are linked to each other to support a perception of tonalitv are disregarded. Hence, tonally unrelated chords serve to diminish tonal stability, while the avoidance of dissonance creates an acoustical purity that suggests a corresponding spiritual/emotional purity. Melodies are often modal, with catchy turns of phrase that are instantly recognizable as Rosner’s own; rhythm is generally very simple and straightforward, although patterns may be combined in more subtle, complex ways; counterpoint is used more as a “special effect” than as a natural aspect of melodic development, so that textures are often starkly homophonic.

I have been called to task in some quarters for using the word “primitivistic” in describing Rosner’s music, as if I were criticizing his compositional technique as inadequate. However, I am sure that, with a doctorate in music theory, Rosner was sufficiently exposed to advanced compositional techniques. What I meant to describe was a deliberate repudiation of much of that technical apparatus, not unlike what motivated Alan Hovhaness– whose music Rosner’s often resembles– and the original minimalists– whose music Rosner’s only occasionally resembles. This repudiation is implied rather defiantly in the program notes to this recording when, after enumerating his various composition teachers, he adds, “from whom I learned practically nothing.” The result is a direct, elemental type of expression, through which a wide range of emotions-including some very extreme states of mind– is presented without the dilution or distillation that often emerges from more complex elaboration. It is probably this directness– as well as the catchy melodies– that makes Rosner’s music so accessible to so many general listeners.

What I find most remarkable after listening to this disc is how different in form and expressive content each piece is, despite the rather restricted vocabulary within which Rosner chooses to work. This is not only true when considering Quartets Nos. 2, 3, and 5, but also No. 4, which is available on an Opus One CD (No. 150). The second quartet comprises one multi-sectional movement, largely based on the opening theme, a pregnant, wide-arching melody, essentially diatonic, but with some chromatic touches. In a number of ways, this quartet is “pure Rosner”– a work that displays many of the composer’s favorite effects and devices, often in their most blatant and obvious presentation, without the more sophisticated integration that occurs in later works. These effects and devices, which may be read as mannerisms or as stylistic traits, depending on one’s general sympathy toward the music, include major-minor juxtapositions, sudden shifts between moments of aggressive ferocity and ecstatic rapture, the familiar Shostakovich “galloping” rhythmic pattern, symmetrical phrases repeated in sequence, jolly jig-like tunes, and hymnlike pseudo-Renaissance modal polyphony. Yet despite its immaturity, the Quartet No. 2 is endearing for the authenticity of its conviction, as well as for its moments of incandescent fervor.

The third quartet was composed two years later, but underwent some significant revisions in 1992, in anticipation of its premiere performance by the Ad Hoc Quartet. I gather that the revisions were largely matters of tightening the structure so that, except for one episode, the music itself represents original date of composition. The longest of the composer’s string quartets, it is also the most conventionally structured, with three movements, of which the first is a sonata allegro form. Yet its basic style is essentially the same as that of its predecessor, its Classical aspects quite subsumed within Rosner’s unique and highly personalized rhetoric. This rhetoric does entail filling out forms with a good deal of literal repetition, likely to appall less indulgent listeners. But those who are captivated by Rosner’s infectious tunes and by his strange juxtapositions of emotional and musical content will not be d isappointed by this work (or by any other on this disc).

No. 4 is my favorite of Rosner’s string quartets, and rather than omit it from this discussion, I will draw the following comments from my review, which appeared in Fanfare 14:5 (p. to which I refer interested listeners. “Composed in 1972, this highly personal work carries to powerful extremes Rosner’s distinctive manner of turning ancient forms and devices to contemporary expressive purposes . . . . The Quartet No. 4 is one of Rosner’s most fully realized works — tightly constructed both expressively and motivically. Its virile, full-bodied — at times aggressively violent– use of the quartet medium may bring Shostakovich to mind, while its eerie serenity and sense of timeless spirituality may remind others of Arvo Part. Yet it maintains a stylistic consistency throughout. In fact, its prevailing tone of grim intensity, its resolute, unvarying D-Minor tonality, and its two successive slow movements — each based on a variation form — may be “too much” (in the Allan Pettersson sense for some listeners, while others will find its emotional urgency arresting and compelling.”

Rosner composed his Quartet No. 5 in 1977. In this work (and in No. 4 the elements found in the earlier quartets are integrated with somewhat more assurance, sophistication, and sense of unity. Reminders of Hovhaness and Shostakovich are less apparent, while other elements that have concerned Rosner in more recent works– techniques and sounds suggesting the music of India, busy textural patterns that evoke a trance-like mood, somewhat along the lines of the minimalists —  are more prominent. The quartet reminds me of the two-piano Of Numbers and of Bells(composed six years later), which has proven to be so popular, although I find that both works are stretched out longer than their substance can sustain.

The latest work on the disc is the Duet for Violas, composed in 1991. As I readily though not with pride) admit, music for unaccompanied unilinear instruments rarely appeals to me, and pieces for two such instruments don’t fare much better (although I do love the Bartok violin duos and some similar works by Kodaly and Martinu, come to think of it).  But Rosner’s eight-minute duo is surprisingly effective. Its two sections follow a slow-fast format and display a tightness of focus and concentration of expressive intensity reflective of a greater compositional maturity. I find it a thoroughly consummated work, and other skeptical listeners are likely to be pleasantly surprised.

The Ad Hoc String Quartet, based in Chicago, has devoted a great deal of time and effort to bringing Rosner’s chamber music to a wider audience, and they are to be commended for their courage, dedication, and generally fine results. But those who are the first to bring unusual and neglected works to life face such a challenge in creating an initial coherent statement that their renditions are rarely definitive. Besides, though generally easy to read and play, Rosner’s music requires impeccable intonation, his chromatically related triads requiring an attentiveness to enharmonic distinctions, e.g., the difference between C-sharp and D-flat. Approximations that would be tolerated in more conventionally tonal music — and in more dissonant music — can sound noticeably wrong in Rosner’s peculiar syntax. The performances on this disc are serviceable and valuable in making these works available to the listening public, but readings of greater precision and refinement will represent the music more convincingly.

Rosner enthusiasts will need no encouragement to grab this new release. Those who have yet to discover his music might better begin with the orchestral disc on Laurel (LR-849CD; Fanfare 13:3, pp. 279ff). And when will we hear one of Rosner’s six symphonies?

LEES: Sonatas for Violin and Piano: No. 1; No. 2; No. 3. Invenzione for Violin Solo

LEES: Sonatas for Violin and Piano: No. 1; No. 2; No. 3. Invenzione for Violin Solo. Ellen Orner, violin; Joel Wizansky, piano. ALBANY TROY-138 [DDD];71:04. Produced by George Orner.

Benjamin Lees (b. 1924) is a perplexing case: a serious artist who writes music of considerable substance that reflects a gritty creative urgency and a respect for traditional musical values, while exhibiting a consummate mastery of the techniques that support these values. His language is rooted in an orientation around Prokofiev and Bartok, but has evolved considerably from those coordinates. Hence his mature works display a rather dissonant harmonic language, with an attenuated — but discernable– sense of tonality, and a strong rhythmic thrust. Measured against the major trends in American music, Lees emerges as quite conservative, with little reference to compositional fashions that held sway after 1945. Yet I suspect that few listeners whose tastes center around the classical mainstream would find Lees’ music appealing. There is something missing from it that prevents it from exerting a really strong attraction– the kind of attraction that might generate a lasting enthusiasm. Every time I listen to it, I appreciate it more, yet I rarely turn to it spontaneously. I think the answer is that Lees’ music lacks a strong personal profile, i.e., what is generally meant by “personality.” Even a composer like Walter Piston, often damned with faint praise as “academic,” displayed a good dealmore panache and flair. All this is most unfortunate, because — as this disc makes abundantly clear — Lees has written some truly fine, meaningful, and masterful music. 

The earliest work is the Violin Sonata No. 1, dating from 1953. On the one hand, it is rather conventional in character, shape, and gesture, with strong echoes of Prokofiev. On the other hand,it is a vigorous, ambitious, and assured statement without an uncertain moment. One might compare it to, for example, John Corigliano’s Violin Sonata, composed a decade later, but inhabiting very similar stylistic territory. Lees’ work impresses as more finely wrought, but the later work lingers longer in the memory, although much of its charm is second-hand. Next comes Invenzione for violin solo, composed in 1965. Works forunaccompanied violin comprise one of the least ingratiating genres I know. Nonetheless, this work, premiered by Ruggiero Ricci, captures one’s attention better than most. The Violin Sonata No. 2 of 1973 — like its predecessor, in three movements — shows more traces of Bartok’s influence than Prokofiev’s. Its density of content is somewhat greater, making a stronger, more complex statement. Again, its tone is serious and high-minded, and its craftsmanship is impeccable, yet one searches in vain for a sense of temperament.

Sonata No. 3, composed in 1989, is the shortest of the three, comprisingone 18-minute movement. Without abandoning the type of language found in the preceding music, this work is still more complex, more concentrated in its focus, and even denser in developmental intensity. All three sonatas grow more rewarding with repeated hearings. Moscow-born violinist Ellen Orner offers performances that reveal the same uncompromising, intensely serious-minded attitude found in the music. Her technique is excellent, tone is quite attractive, and her interpretations show commitment and intelligent artistry. Pianist Joel Wizansky’s contributions are worthy of the company. This is a superb recording that deserves far more attention than it is likely to receive. Listeners interested in this area of the repertoire will not be disappointed.

ROSNER: Of Numbers and of Bells. Sonata for French Horn and Piano. Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano. Nightstone

ROSNER: Of Numbers and of Bells. Sonata for French Horn and Piano. Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano. Nightstone. Randolph Lacy, tenor; Heidi Garson, French Horn; Maxine Neuman, cello; Timothy Hester, piano; Nancy Weems, piano; Yolanda Liepa, piano; Joan Stein, piano. ALBANY TROY-163 (DDD; ADDl; 67:13. Produced by John Proffitt, Max Schubel.

As American composer Arnold Rosner turns 50 this year, his large output of more than 100 works continues to reach increasingly larger audiences. This new release provides an opportunity for those who have discovered this unusual composer only since the advent of the compact disc to acquaint themselves with the two works that first introduced his name to recordings: the Sonata for Horn and Piano and the Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano, each of which first appeared on Opus One LPs (seeFanfare 8:1, p. 299; 9:5, p. 226). Thane excellent readings are reissued on this Albany disc, complemented by a couple of first recordings that also feature superb performances. Most important, all four works — duos for various media — are representative of Rosner at his most compelling arid most individual, making this an indispensable release for all those who are already admirers of his music, as well as for those who might be contemplating their first exposure to it.

By way of introduction to readers not yet familiar with the composer and his works (see also interview in Fanfare 14:5, pp. 414-19), Rosner is something of a maverick, rejecting virtually every compositional trend, from Neoclassicism and Neoromanticism to Serialism and Minimalism. Instead, he has developed a unique yet highly accessible language built largely around modal melodies, consonant, triadic harmony — often used in unconventional, non-tonal ways–and applications of such venerable techniques as cantus firmus and isorhythm, not to mention passacaglia, fugue, and sonata-allegro form. There is a strongly spiritual quality to much of his music, often Roman-Catholic in flavor, most obviously in his a capella masses, yet his own Jewish background is also evident in a number of works, either explicitly (e.g. the Sephardic Rhapsody) or through the appearance of a vaguely Middle-Easternmelos. More angular complex passages may suggest Shostakovich or Holmboe (to listeners familiar with the great Dane), while simpler, more diatonic sections often resemble Hovhaness. The propensity for spiritual states of mind and ancient techniques may lead the reader to suspect something along the lines of Gorecki, Part, or Tavener, but Rosner is much more accommodating to the listener’s desire for contrapuntal, rhythmic, and developmental activity dramatic tension and resolution, and variety in mood and emotion. His weakest aspect is a tendency toward a plodding rhythmic monotony in some works and, like many prolific composers who work within a highly idiosyncratic, circumscribed style (e.g., Hovhaness, Martinu, etc.), there is a tendency toward redundancy. But at his best, Rosner has something unique and refreshing to offer, and most of his work can be appreciated by listeners with little background in classical music.

The Cello Sonata No. 1 is the earliest work here, dating from 1968, when the composer was 23, although it underwent significant revision in 1977. It is rather similar to the Horn Sonata of 1979, although the latter — one of Rosner’s most fully consummated works — is more polished and sophisticated. This sonata seems well on the way to becoming a staple of the repertoire for the instrument. Both sonatas comprise three movements in a slow-fast-slow sequence. The first movements are angular and searching, with a piercingly brooding intensity, not unlike Shostakovich in his chamber works. The Horn Sonata opening is a brilliant passacaglia whose structure is neatly concealed by its expressive immediacy. Both second movements are scherzo-like in character, though the Cello Sonata’s is demonic and violent, while the Horn Sonata’s is jubilant and exalted. Both finales are incantational and hymn-like, with a rapturous, devotional quality.

Of Numbers and of Bells, dating from 1983, is the most recent of the selections offered here. Its title suggests its joint preoccupation with both sonority and numerology. Scored for two pianos, it presents a haunting and mysterious pattern of modal, Middle-Eastern-sounding arabesques that becomes a backdrop against which develop multi-layered textures based on irregularly overlapping rhythmic patterns, chordal patterns, and piano sonorities, culminating at times in thunderous, noble roars. The work may strike some listeners as New Age or Minimalist in effect, although both currents are anathema to Rosner. At 15 minutes, it does go on a bit too long, but there is much about it that is quite lovely, and the piece has already proven to have captivating effect on many listeners.

Nightstone(1979) comprises settings of three well-known portions of the Song of Songs in a folk-like, slightly Hebraic vein. The melodies are pleasantly ingratiating, and the second song, in particular, has real character. But the accompaniments could benefit from a more varied and colorful scoring — perhaps flute, harp, and tambourine, for example — because with piano alone, the simple arpeggiated and chordal figurations, with recurrent use of quintuple meter, become a bit monotonous Randolph Lacy has a light, accurate tenor whose quality is nicely suited to the music.