ROSNER Tragedy of Queen Jane. Concerto for Two Trumpets, Strings, and Timpani. A Millennium Overture. A Sephardic Rhapsody · Nicholas Palmer, cond; Owensboro SO; Altoona SO; Robert Murray, Jonathan Martin (tpts) · ALBANY TROY-548 (74:55)
ROSNER String Sextet, “Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland”. Trombone Sonata. Besos sin Cuento · Sestetto Agosto; Gregory Erickson (tbn); Angelina Tallaj (pn); Pinotage (Julia Bentley [mez], Janice MacDonald [fl], Claudia Lasareff-Mironoff [va], Alison Attar [hp]) · ALBANY TROY-553 (63:19)
Listeners who have yet to discover the music of Arnold Rosner will find some optimal points of entry here, while those who are already enthusiasts will find these two new releases to be a treasure-trove. Now in his late 50s–an approximate contemporary of such figures as John Adams, Joseph Schwantner, and Christopher Rouse–Rosner has been a staunch–even defiant–traditionalist throughout a composing career that now stretches back some 40 years. Despite an orthodox academic pedigree (earned after his aesthetic values were largely in place), he has never succumbed to the lure of any of the fashionable compositional trends–serialism, indeterminacy, minimalism, et al.–that have arisen during this period. Instead, he has concentrated on developing the idiosyncratic approach that emerged as his own personal creative voice while he was still in his mid-teens. Like that of the Portuguese Joly Braga Santos (discussed elsewhere in this issue), Rosner’s personal musical language is derived from materials that are basically familiar, and hence reveals reminiscences of a variety of other composers. Also like Braga Santos, Rosner’s music is not without certain characteristic weaknesses. In his case, these are, chiefly, a tendency toward prolixity, an over-use of particular favorite devices (a common blind-spot among highly individualistic composers), and an inconsistency with regard to that vague but indispensable factor, “inspiration.” But–as in the case of the Portuguese composer–these are overshadowed by the strength and individuality of his creative personality. Indeed, I suspect that many listeners who enjoy the music of one of these composers will also appreciate that of the other. However, unlike Braga Santos, whose strong personal voice eventually led him to a creative dead end, requiring him to abandon his approach in favor of a radically different but far less individual course, Rosner has refined his language into a fluent and versatile syntax, capable of a remarkably broad range of expression.
These two new Albany releases–one featuring orchestral music, the other, chamber works–illustrate the breadth of Rosner’s expressive reach, embracing abstract neo-classicism, tragic drama set in Elizabethan England, a rhapsodic evocation of the Jews of the Mediterranean region, and songs suggestive of the early Spanish Renaissance. As noted above, Rosner’s music often calls other composers to mind: The pieces discussed here suggest figures as diverse as Hindemith, Martinu, Vaughan Williams, and Hovhaness. But Rosner’s music always retains its own unmistakable identity–a unique expressive essence that distinguishes it from the music of others that his may resemble superficially. This essence involves the striking juxtaposition of intense, at times passionate, neo-romantic content against materials strongly suggestive of antiquity. In his best music, a powerful emotionalism is always threatening to burst through the modal, neo-Renaissance–or, at times, neo-Medieval–polyphony. This strange stylistic incongruity, and the tension created by attempting to contain intense passions within a highly constrained syntax, produces the unique spiritual and sensual ambiguities of Rosner’s music, the appeal of which can be gauged by a perusal of the comments made by some of the more informed Internet critics (e.g. Steve Schwartz [Classical.net] and Rob Barnett [Musicweb.uk.net]). Though difficult to describe adequately in words, the impact of this music is felt in abundance in the works offered here.
Millennium Overture is one of Rosner’s few short, compact orchestral works, and provides an excellent introduction to his expressive realm. Commissioned by the adventurous conductor David Amos (another staunch advocate of the composer’s work) on behalf of his San Diego TICO Orchestra, the overture is actually an orchestration of the exuberant and tuneful finale of Rosner’s Cello Sonata No. 2 (1990). Despite the recycling, the work fully meets the expectations of its new role, and, unlike much of his music, it is rousing and extroverted, but not without considerable developmental activity.
The Sephardic Rhapsody (1992) is another work originally commissioned by Amos. Here Rosner ventures into the familiar “exotic ethnic rhapsody” genre, attempting to evoke the flavor of Mediterranean Jewish melos, while acknowledging that most music of the region employs similar modal features, despite the political issues that may divide its various peoples. The work follows the norms of the genre, beginning with a slow, improvisatory section, and gradually accumulating energy and speed for a dance-like finale in irregular meter. Although the rhapsody maintains a strongly Middle-Eastern flavor throughout, it reveals a thorough application of the developmental processes found in most of the composer’s music.
Quite a different work is the Concerto for Two Trumpets, Strings, and Timpani, composed in 1997. Its instrumentation and quasi-neo-classical/Baroque conception is somewhat reminiscent of Martinu, but, as stated earlier, the resemblance is superficial. Though avowedly angular and chromatic at times, to the point of near-atonality, it nevertheless also displays the archaisms that are never wholly absent from Rosner’s music. The outer movements maintain a driving, contrapuntal vigor that at times verges on the relentless, while the second movement, conceived along the lines of a passacaglia, achieves a grim eloquence.
In many ways the most interesting music on the orchestral disc is The Tragedy of Queen Jane, the name Rosner gave to the orchestral suite he drew from his (still unperformed) opera, The Chronicle of Nine (1981), which tells the story of the nine-day reign of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey of England. Such groups of excerpts have often served as means of introducing the music from little-known operas to a broader public–presumably with the hope that exposure to representative selections may create a demand for the entire work. Perhaps that will be the result in this case, because–more than the other orchestral music offered here–these excerpts provide a particularly revealing glimpse of Rosner’s strange stylistic juxtaposition. The first section is the “Prelude,” which sets the mood of the opera with sumptuously celestial harmony–largely triads and open-fifths–scored for strings, widely spaced, and accompanied by harp arpeggios, creating a sense of awe-inspiring serenity, abruptly interrupted by fierce neo-Renaissance episodes in the brass. This movement, it must be admitted, is a bit over-extended, continuing on after the effect has been sufficiently achieved. The second section, “Masque,” is a delightful group of Elizabethan-style dances, along the lines of A Gentle Musicke, which appears on an earlier all-Rosner orchestral disc (Laurel LR-849CD). This movement could benefit from a lighter, livelier interpretive approach. The third section, “Clarion,” is an excellent example of Rosner’s subtle originality: Built upon neo-archaic fanfare-like ideas introduced by the brass, it develops a rather menacing power through unusual harmonic juxtapositions effected through pedal-points. The final section, “Dirge,” will be familiar to Rosnerians, as it was included on the aforementioned Laurel disc, in a performance featuring David Amos and the Jerusalem Symphony. This elegiac processional is the most striking movement of the suite, and is an excellent example of the composer’s application of a neo-archaic language, which he uses naturally and “from the inside out” to create a personal neo-romantic expression. Palmer and the Owensboro musicians offer a performance marginally more potent than Amos’s earlier reading. This suite will certainly whet listeners’ appetites for the entire opera, as intended.
It is good to welcome the gifted conductor Nicholas Palmer to the growing list of Rosner proponents. His performances show, for the most part, a real understanding of the composer’s unusual expressive content. The past decade or two have witnessed a significant decentralization of orchestral resources from a concentration on a dozen or two “world-class” aggregations. As such ensembles become increasingly sclerotic, moribund enterprises, functioning largely as aristocratic but artistically irrelevant showpieces for the entertainment industry, truly significant musical activity has moved elsewhere, chiefly to Sweden, Finland, and the countries of Eastern Europe, where recordings of interest to those who actually listen to (as opposed to talk over) music can still afford to be made, and–thanks to the Internet–are easily accessible to the entire world. Palmer’s recording provides persuasive evidence that orchestras from America’s hinterlands–Altoona, PA and Owensboro, KY in this case–deserve to be taken seriously as contenders in this new 21st-century classical-music marketplace. One hopes that this pioneering effort will be rewarded and followed by other comparable ventures.
However, the Rosner work among this rich bounty that impresses me the most is on the chamber music CD: the String Sextet, originally composed in 1970, but revised in 1996. Having begun composing prolifically at such a young age, Rosner had completed nearly 50 works by the time he had reached the age of 25, although hardly any of them had been performed by that time, and few were during the years that followed. Most of these pieces display the enduring and idiosyncratic elements of Rosner’s style, while revealing some awkwardness and immaturity in structural coherence. So for the past several years the composer has been gradually reviewing these earlier works and, essentially, re-composing them, retaining their basic content and conceptual structures, but tightening and strengthening their processes of formal articulation. Many composers avoid this sort of thing, finding that revisiting the fruits of one period with the consciousness of another proves to be a “slippery slope,” but the process has worked well for Rosner. String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3, Cello Sonata No. 1, and Five Meditations have all been subjected to such revision, and–currently available on recording–have been well received by other critics and listeners as well as myself. Now we have the opportunity to consider the revised String Sextet, which was given its first hearing in either incarnation by these performers at Northwestern University, in 1998.
The Sextet comprises two movements, the first a theme with variations, and the second called “Motet.” The Lutheran hymn of the subtitle, in its setting by Praetorius, serves as a “secret” subtext that only emerges explicitly at the end. Rosner conceives of the first movement as “darker, more instrumental in attitude and closer to classical-period forms,” while the second is “brighter, more vocal, and akin to Renaissance attitude.” I do not find this conceptual contrast to be borne out by the listening experience–at least not to the extent suggested. What I do hear is an extraordinary work whose surface language suggests, say, the viol fantasias of Purcell (although such a comparison may be appalling to Early Music aficionados), while its content seems to fuse together an intense inner turmoil with a simultaneous expression of serenity. Going even further out on a limb of associated impressions, I would suggest it as ideal background music for the notorious orgy scene in Stanley Kubrick’s bizarre film Eyes Wide Shut. Rosner’s Sextet is among the composer’s most impressive pieces of chamber music known to me, along with the Sonata for Horn and Piano (Albany-TROY 163) and the String Quartet No. 4 (available on Opus One-150)–the discovery of which, some 30 years ago, persuaded me that Rosner’s was an arresting individual voice, worthy of serious consideration. Sestetto Agosto is a group of expert string players from the Chicago area, one of whom–Paul Vanderwerf–completed a doctoral dissertation on Rosner’s string music. The performance here offers an effective representation of the work, while leaving plenty of room for further refinements and interpretive insights.
Those already familiar with Rosner’s Horn Sonata will find the more recent (1996) Trombone Sonata conceived along similar lines: abstract, Hindemithian neo-classicism on the surface, but underlain by the same Manichean expressive ambivalence, which elevates the work considerably above the level of gebrauchsmusik. The Horn Sonata is notable for an especially engaging central scherzo that follows a powerful opening passacaglia. The Trombone Sonata–two vigorous outer movements flanking a mysterious Adagio–is perhaps a bit drier and more severe, with less that is immediately appealing, although this may be partly a reaction to trombonist Gregory Erickson’s performance, which, though accurate enough, is quite under-characterized. This is a common and understandable shortcoming of initial presentations of new works; perhaps subsequent performances will project the sonata’s meaning with more flair and eloquence. Nevertheless, Rosner’s Trombone Sonata is a compelling work, and an important contribution to the instrument’s limited repertoire.
I tend to find Rosner’s solo vocal music less interesting than his orchestral, choral, and chamber works. His language seems more constrained in his songs, and the sequences of short selections all using more or less the same devices become monotonous after a while. This is somewhat less true for Besos sin Cuento (1989), as the scoring for low voice, flute, viola, and harp allows for a felicitous variety of color and texture. Much of Rosner’s vocal music draws upon texts that are naturally suited to the exotic, neo-archaic tendencies of his style, as in these six settings of light-hearted amorous verses from the Spanish Renaissance. Mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley displays an attractive voice with accurate intonation, although her enunciation is a bit compromised. The instrumentalists of the contemporary-music ensemble known as Pinotage provide fine support.
Although Arnold Rosner’s music is becoming increasingly well known, there are still plenty of pieces that remain undocumented on recording–far too many to enumerate here (the interested listener is referred to the composer’s website at http://www.phidler.com/rosner). However, of particular interest is the fifth of his six symphonies, a 40-minute work in the form of a Mass for orchestra, using the Gregorian hymn Salve Regina as a cantus firmus. Familiar with the work through a tape of the 1975 premiere, with the Colorado Philharmonic, I can assert confidently that (although there are other symphonic Masses) there is nothing else quite like it in the repertoire. I wonder how the fans of Tavener and Pärt react to Rosner’s music. As must be apparent from the foregoing descriptions, his works offer many of the same timeless, spiritual qualities as theirs, while satisfying the listener’s preference for activity and a sense of progression.