by Walter Simmons
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.