American Classics - Rochberg: Symphony No 2, Etc

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George Rochberg's angry Second Symphony, written in one highly contrasted movement divided into five sections, is a 12-tone piece that sounds very much of its 1950s vintage. It's also extremely well-written and not too difficult to follow, with a central Adagio that contains some beautiful woodwind solos. In other words, the music sounds more like Berg than Schoenberg, if that helps, and while listening is hardly "fun", Rochberg at least has the honesty to make it clear that it isn't meant to be. This is seriously anguished stuff. He described it as "hard romanticism", which is fair enough, but I can't help but observe at this late date just how much works written in this style have dated. Indeed, it's hard to believe that anyone found them fearsome at all: their violence and difficulty now come across more as petulance than anything else, an almost childish tantrum aimed first and foremost at getting attention.

Make no mistake, Rochberg was an immensely talented composer, and his music, even the early works written in a style he later renounced, deserves to be treated with respect. This symphony is an important piece in his maturation as an artist, and I can easily see myself returning to it more than once for its energy, expressive tension, and vivid use of the orchestra. But at the same time, the music also explains why he felt the need to abandon this method of composition later in his career in order to get back in touch with his own feelings, and to make contact with his audience. The principal difference between Rochberg and many of his colleagues (then and now) is his realization that dodecaphonic music really is only good at expressing anger and suffering, if it expresses anything at all. Taking it further involves either a tour-de-force of compositional skill that few possess, or at all events constitutes an effort hardly worth making when other expressive options are so readily available.

One of those options you can hear in Imago Mundi (1973), a response to the composer's first experience of traditional Japanese music. It's much more than one of those trendy, eclectic, "East meets West" amalgams that wend their way through 20th century classical music like Chinese Modern furniture in your grandmother's living room. What particularly fascinated Rochberg about Asian music was its different treatment of time: the static, non-developing quality, in which events succeed one another unpredictably and give the impression of unity by other than traditional means of symphonic development. Indeed, it's instructive to compare this magnificently colorful, evocative piece with the earlier Second Symphony and realize that its unconventional structure is more suspenseful and fulfilling (and easier to follow) than we might expect from a form rooted in the tried-and-true European tradition. And no sane person would accuse Rochberg of "selling out" here! The juxtaposition of the two pieces really does speak volumes, not just about Rochberg's own artistic evolution, but also about the 20th century musical "crisis" from which we finally seem to be emerging (with a few tired leftovers, such as Pierre Boulez, still hanging around).

As with previous issues in this series, Christopher Lyndon-Gee leads outstanding performances and gets some pretty impressive playing from the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra. It's ironic: on the one hand Germany is largely responsible for the horror that defines so much of modern music, but on the other hand we can only be grateful for the lavish funding that (for now at least) allows radio orchestras like this one to flourish and play the stuff. Sure, most of it will be garbage, and with a major birthday for Henze (80) coming up, we can only have pity for what's in store for the German music-loving public. Talk about depressing! But amid the arid atonal detritus, gems pop up now and then, and Rochberg's music, even the tough stuff, surely belongs in that category. And here we also get fabulous sonics--another specialty of German radio. Yes, the music may be challenging, but it's well worth your time and attention.
--David Hurwitz,

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8559182

  • UPC: 636943918227

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1