by Walter Simmons
ROSNER: Concerto Grosso No. 1, op. 60. The Chronicle of Nine, op. 81: Prelude to Act II. Five Meditations, op. 36. A Gentle Musicke, op. 44. Magnificat, op. 72. David Amos conducting the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra; with the Choir of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul and the Clarion Brass of San Diego. LAUREL LR-849CD; 66:20. Produced by Herschel Burke Gilbert.
This is an important release, sure to appeal to the not insignificant number of listeners who have already discovered Rosner’s music through the Opus One recordings of his French horn sonata and cello sonata, released during the past few years (see Fanfare 8:1, p. 299 and 9:5, p. 226). Like many others of today’s composers for whom there seems to be an active and receptive audience, Arnold Rosner writes music that is extremely straightforward, accessible, and rooted in traditional sounds and formal structures. Echoes and reminiscences of other composers abound, from Josquin and Gesualdo to Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, and Hovhaness. Yet the cumulative impact of his music—with regard both to external style and inner meaning—is unmistakably unique and unquestionably original. This conclusion could be drawn from the two sonatas mentioned earlier, but becomes even more apparent with this generous offering of works for larger forces.
Rosner has been a stubborn individualist from the beginning. Carving out his “sound” before receiving any formal training, he endured the rigidly coercive dogmas of 1960s musical academia without compromise—paying more than his share of dues, perhaps, but eventually earning the first Ph.D in music granted by the State University of New York.
In a way, Rosner is a “neo-” composer: The Magnificat is clearly a neo-Renaissance work, A Gentle Musicke and Five Meditations might be termed neo-Elizabethan, Concerto Grosso No. 1 is neo-Baroque, and the opera prelude is what is usually called neo-Romantic. Yet there is a stylistic and psychological unity among these works that relates them as separate facets of an integral aesthetic approach, as opposed to merely superficial exercises in saprophytic opportunism. On a purely musical level, the unifying thread is their attempt to derive maximum expressive power from pure or almost pure consonance, treated in a modal or chromatic—rather than conventionally tonal—fashion. In other words, the traditional feature most inimical to Rosner’s style is diatonic tonality—the mainstay of the Classical period and the fundamental principle of Austro-Germanic music theory. Thus, while the predominance of consonant harmony gives Rosner’s music a familiar, accessible sound, its avoidance of conventional tonal patterns and relationships distinguishes it from the rhetoric of most western music of the past three centuries.
Of the pieces presented here, the most stunning is the six-minute Prelude to Act II of the opera, The Chronicle of Nine, completed in 1984 and based on the story of Lady Jane Grey, the teenage girl who—caught in a political web woven by others—became Queen of England for nine days before being dethroned and executed. The story is ideal for Rosner, providing the opportunity for an intense emotional experience within the historical context of sixteenth-century England—a natural setting for Rosner’s musical language, with its many deliberately archaic usages. This unusual stylistic interpretation is apparent in the Prelude—also included in The Tragedy of Queen Jane, the four-movement orchestral suite drawn from the opera—a solemn dirge of tremendous power, eloquence, and majesty, prompting great interest in The Chronicle of Nine as a whole.
The Concerto Grosso No. 1 was composed in 1974 (another followed several years later). Scored for chamber orchestra, this is a strikingly energetic work that calls to mind such Northern European neoclassicists as Vagn Holmboe and Harald Saeverud. Opening with a stark French Overture, the body of the first movement is a bracing, contrapuntal allegro. The second movement is a rather plaintive hymn, while the third movement, based on an infectious rhythmic pattern in 5/8, concludes the work with exuberant vigor.
While the Concerto Grosso is clearly a work of this century, despite its nod to the spirit of the Baroque, Rosner’s 1979 setting of the Magnificat could probably fool many a casual listener into identifying it as an actual work of the Renaissance, so tentatively does it deviate from archaic norms, although its frequent juxtapositions of major and minor thirds are more blatant and overt than Purcell would ever have allowed. However, listeners familiar with Rosner’s other neo-Renaissance works will hear plenty of his own idiosyncratic harmonic and rhythmic traits. Those who require that twentieth-century music exhibit at least a post-nineteenth-century level of aggression and dissonance may find this (and other Rosner pieces) too tame for their tastes; others will appreciate its reverent spirituality on its own terms, while perhaps finding its unabashed anachronism startling and refreshing.
Also in the category of unabashed anachronisms—though charming nonetheless—are the Five Meditations for English horn, harp, and strings, originally composed in 1967 but revised in 1980, and A Gentle Musicke for flute and strings, dating from 1969. These are the sort of pieces that delight programmers of commercial classical FM stations: novel and unfamiliar, yet totally accessible—and with short movements, along the lines of Warlock’s Capriol Suite. Lively pseudo-Elizabethan dances alternate with slow, serene neo-Renaissance canzonas somewhat reminiscent of Hovhaness (whose entry in the New Grove was written by Rosner). I prefer the greater conciseness and exuberance of A Gentle Musicke, but both are delightful.
David Amos, who is developing quite a reputation as a champion of unjustly neglected twentieth-century music, provides some of his most persuasive performances on this disc. The Concerto Grosso is given a reading of great incisiveness, bristling with energy, while the opera prelude projects the necessary weight and grandeur. The Jerusalem Symphony generally plays well, making a convincing case for the music, as does the chorus in the Magnificat. Sound quality is extremely good; in fact, the only real objection I have is to the design of the front cover, which is extremely cluttered with data of marginal importance, better relegated to the back cover (where it appears again anyway).