Important pieces from an important American composer
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 11/02/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"George Rochberg, now in his 80s, is one of America's finest living composers. He first burst into the American concertgoers' awareness with the uproar attending the première and recording of his Third String Quartet; it was one of the very first 'eclectic' works in an era of fairly strict serialism/atonalism/aleatorism and there was good deal of huffing and puffing about it amongst the academics, who implied it was meretricious. Needless to say, it lasted longer than their criticisms did. He had felt a need to alter his previously serial/atonal style after his young son died in 1964, and he was thrown into deep grief. He worked himself out of this crisis by developing his eclectic style, one which makes use of all prior musical styles as the need is felt. The earliest piece, the Cantio Sacra (1953) is a rich tonal orchestral transcription of a set of organ variations on 'Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herr' by German Baroque composer Samuel Scheidt. Rochberg says he has always been fascinated by the variation form, and indeed this fascination led to the composition of his well-known 'Caprice Variations' for solo violin some twenty years later. It and Rzewski's 'The People United Will Never Be Defeated' are the two highest peaks in late 20th-century American variation form.'Black Sounds', a piece for seventeen winds, was extracted from his larger wind piece, 'Apocalyptica', and dates from 1965. It was used by choreographer Anna Sokolow for her 'The Act' in which a murder is portrayed. The seventeen minutes of music is intense and unrelenting, although easily assimilable, and is highly chromatic. 'Phaedra', a monodrama for mezzo and orchestra, the longest piece on the disc, uses Robert Lowell's translation of Racine's 'Phèdre', extracting those passages in which Phaedra herself speaks. It tells the story of Phaedra's insane love for the son of Theseus, her new husband. Theseus's death is reported, Phaedra confesses her love to the son, Hippolytus, and only later is it learned that Theseus is not, in fact, dead. She lies to Theseus, claiming that Hippolytus tried to seduce her; Theseus orders his son's death and she begs for him to be spared, but Theseus remains firm and Hippolytus is put to death. Phaedra takes poison, but before she dies she confesses to Theseus that it was she who loved Hippolytus, and that his son was in fact in love with another. Her dramatic and moving final aria ('My last calamity has come') ends with these words: 'I killed myself and what was worse I wasted my life for pleasures I have never tasted. My lover flees me still, and my last gasp is for the flesh I failed to clasp.' This is followed by an orchestral postlude, 'The Death of Hippolytus', that brings the tragedy to a mournful ending. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is a group new to me. They were founded in 1996 and make it their mission to give performances of important twentieth century music as well as newly composed pieces, mostly American. They have commissioned several works, and just as important, are dedicated to giving second performances of significant pieces that would otherwise continue languishing unperformed. To this listener they seem remarkably qualified for these tasks; these performances are electrifying.Strongly recommended."
Passion in Contemporary American Music
Robin Friedman | Washington, D.C. United States | 06/24/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This CD consisting of three works by the contemporary American composer George Rochberg (b. 1918)will be a revelation to those listeners who shy away from modern music as cold, overly technical, and cerebral. Rochberg began his compositional career writing predominantly in an atonal idiom. Beginning in the mid-1960s he began writing tonal music as well, and his more recent compositions are predominantly tonal in character.In fact, many American composers, among them, Ives, Copland, Seigmeister, Orenstein, have moved between modernistic and more traditional musical styles at various points in their lives.Back to passion. Of the three selections on this disc, two are wildly emotional affairs with themes of uncontrollable love and lust and of murder. I was gripped in particular by "Phaedra" (1973) which Rochberg describes as "a monodrama in seven scenes."
This work is based on Racine's play, which in turn is based upon Euripides. It is a tale of Phaedre's incestous love for Hippolytus, the son of her husband, Theseus. The piece is in seven movements four of which are for mezzo-soprano, speaking in the voice of Phaedre, and three of which are for small chamber orchestra alone. The vocal lines are passionate and declamatory and express to the hilt the feelings of love, lust, and uncontrollable rage. Mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger is outstanding in this performance. Fury comes through her voice, as she handles large vocal leaps and lets her voice snarl with anger. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project complements her voice in the arias and in the interludes, but this performance belongs to Ms. Nessinger.This disc also includes a ballet, "Black Sounds" (1965) written for a ballet called "The Act" which appeared on television in 1965. This music too tells a passionate tale of murder. It opens with a sharp, loud passage for strings and brass and, although it ends softly as the deed is done, the music continues with high intensity for its 17 minute duration.The final work on this CD, "Canta Sacra" (1953) is a transcription of a short set of 12 organ variations by the baroque composer Samuel Scheidt. This music comes as something of a relief to the two outer works on the CD. It is moving and elevated music, well transcribed for orchestra, with little of the visceral, wrenching character of "Phaedre" or "Black Sounds."George Rothberg supervised the recording of the CD and wrote program notes. The disc is part of Naxos's series of American Classics."
Everything you'd expect
Sam A. Mawn-Mahlau | Winchester, MA USA | 10/27/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This album includes recordings of works that have been performed at BMOP's concerts. Performances are steller and the combination of works does a great job of sampling different works from a very versatile composer. BMOP is a young orchestra that has had a big impact on Boston's music scene in recent years. I've been attending BMOP concerts from the beginning, including the concerts where these works were performed, and it's great to finally have recordings from them!"