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Don't you just love it when you take a chance on a completely unknown recording and it turns out to be exceptionally good? Well, that just happened to me recently with the subject of today's review. I have been following Naxos' American Classics series since its inception. These recordings have both surprised and delighted me. I had no idea there was so many terrific and generally overlooked composers south of the border. At Naxos' rock bottom prices (under $10), it is almost painless for one to explore these often obscure works. Here in Toronto, HMV is currently offering three Naxos discs for CDN$20. Now that's one heck of a super deal! If these discs were issued by one of the major labels, they would cost over $20 per disc. I'd probably just walk on by without as much as a glance.

Until I read the liner notes, I had no idea who George Rochberg is (yes, he's still with us). What caught my attention while browsing were the little notes that Naxos provides on the back of their CDs. Said notes pushed all my music hot buttons.

Rochberg, born in New Jersey in 1918, started his musical career playing in Jazz bands as a pianist. He later studied composition under Hans Weisse, George Szell and Leopold Mannes. In 1960, he became Chairman of the Music Department at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1983, he retired from the academic field as the designated Annenberg Professor of the Humanities at U of P. Throughout his career, Rochberg has received numerous awards, accolades and honorary doctorates from around the world. After I read his bio, I was truly astounded just how well respected Rochberg is. Why hadn't I heard of this guy before?

While he is a proponent of the avantgarde with its twelve-tone structure, he deftly mixes in the more traditional romantic styles, thus creating a unique contemporary musical language that he refers to as 'hard' romanticism. The excellent liner notes by Australian conductor Christopher Lyndon-Gee give a first-rate description of the characteristics of Rochberg's unique style of composition. The most prominent is the sense of time/timelessness that is suggested in his works. His tonal palette alternates from heavenly, sonorous beauty to atonal, tortured anguish, and all in a heart beat. This ability to change emotional gears on the fly is reminiscent of Mahler. In fact, on the core work on this disc, the "Fifth Symphony", you can clearly hear bits of Mahler's Ninth. I'm sure Rochberg was so moved by that monumental work he decided to 'tip his hat' to good ol' Gustav M.

Rochbergs' Fifth Symphony is a powerful work played continuously in seven sections. Each section fully demonstrates the composer's aforementioned fascination with time. I get a profound sense of loss or fading memories when listening to this piece. In a way, this characteristic is similar to Russian composer Valentin Silvestrov's evocation of nostalgia in many of his works. Each of these seven vignettes instills a dreamlike quality that wildly alternates from aching beauty to total mayhem and despair. It's all here, kitchen sink included. This is a work that demands greater exposure in the concert hall.

The second work "Black Sounds" is self-explanatory. It is an angry, violent work that evokes an image of an incredibly gruesome act or atrocity. In fact, this work was performed as a televised ballet in 1965, entitled "The Act", which dramatized a murder onstage. How lovely. Incidentally, this telecast won the Prix Italia later that year. The reduced forces of brass, wind and percussion add greatly to the ghastly images this work creates and packs a great wallop that will leave you shattered.

The last piece "Transcendental Variations" is also self-explanatory. This work for string orchestra was derived from the slow movement of Rochberg's "Third String Quartet". It is an utterly beautiful, mysterious eighteen minutes long and again suggests a sense of timelessness. This is a truly gorgeous piece of music.

While I am not familiar with the work of conductor Christopher Lyndon-Gee or that of the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra, they sound totally convincing. Lyndon-Gee was nominated for a Grammy in 1998 for his Marco Polo release of the complete works of Igor Markevitch. He has also received kudos from likes of Gramophone, Fanfare and Penguin Guide to Compact Discs, and is himself an accomplished composer. My goodness, will the surprises ever cease? Both conductor and orchestra are apparently renowned for their support of contemporary music. Good show, chaps.

Sound quality on this disc is perfectly fine and one of Naxos' better sounding recordings. I do not detect any brightness or thinness at all. This is a rich, full-bodied recording that, I'm sure, will sound great on any system.

So, for a little more than CDN$6, you too can savor a truly unique contemporary composer in this fine recording. With the exceptions of Valentin Silvestrov (review coming soon) and Takemitsu, most works of other contemporary composers give me the urge to go behind the barn with a shotgun. Try this disc. I'm sure you won't be disappointed. If you are? Well, it only cost you roughly a fiver.