Notes and Editorial Reviews
"The Rosner work among this rich bounty that impresses me the most is on the chamber music CD: the String Sextet, originally composed in 1970, but revised in 1996. Having begun composing prolifically at such a young age, Rosner had completed nearly 50 works by the time he had reached the age of twenty-five, although hardly any of them had been performed by that time, and few were during the years that followed. Most of these pieces display the enduring and idiosyncratic elements of Rosner’s style, while revealing some awkwardness and immaturity in structural coherence. So for the past several years, the composer has been gradually reviewing these earlier works and, essentially, re-composing them, retaining their basic content and
conceptual structures, but tightening and strengthening their processes of formal articulation. Many composers avoid this sort of thing, finding that revisiting the fruits of one period with the consciousness of another proves to be a “slippery slope,” but the process has worked well for Rosner. String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3, Cello Sonata No. 1, and Five Meditations have all been subjected to such revision, and—currently available on recording—have been well received by other critics and listeners as well as myself. Now we have the opportunity to consider the revised String Sextet, which was given its first hearing in either incarnation by these performers at Northwestern University in 1998.
The Sextet comprises two movements, the first a theme with variations, and the second called “Motet.” The Lutheran hymn of the subtitle, in its setting by Praetorius, serves as a “secret” subtext that emerges explicitly only at the end. Rosner conceives of the first movement as “darker, more instrumental in attitude and closer to Classical-period forms,” while the second is “brighter, more vocal, and akin to Renaissance attitude.” I do not find this conceptual contrast to be borne out by the listening experience—at least not to the extent suggested. What I do hear is an extraordinary work whose surface language suggests, say, the viol fantasias of Purcell (although such a comparison may be appalling to early music aficionados), while its content seems to fuse together an intense inner turmoil with a simultaneous expression of serenity. Going even further out on a limb of associated impressions, I would suggest it as ideal background music for the notorious orgy scene in Stanley Kubrick’s bizarre film Eyes Wide Shut. Rosner’s Sextet is among the composer’s most impressive pieces of chamber music known to me, along with the Sonata for Horn and Piano (Albany-TROY 163) and the String Quartet No. 4 (available on Opus One-150)—the discovery of which, some 30 years ago, persuaded me that Rosner’s was an arresting individual voice, worthy of serious consideration. Sestetto Agosto is a group of expert string players from the Chicago area, one of whom—Paul Vanderwerf—completed a doctoral dissertation on Rosner’s string music. The performance here offers an effective representation of the work, while leaving plenty of room for further refinements and interpretive insights.
Those already familiar with Rosner’s Horn Sonata will find the more recent (1996) Trombone Sonata conceived along similar lines: abstract, Hindemithian neo-Classicism on the surface, but underlaid by the same Manichean expressive ambivalence, which elevates the work considerably above the level of gebrauchsmusik. The Horn Sonata is notable for an especially engaging central scherzo that follows a powerful opening passacaglia. The Trombone Sonata—two vigorous outer movements flanking a mysterious Adagio—is perhaps a bit drier and more severe, with less that is immediately appealing, although this may be partly a reaction to trombonist Gregory Erickson’s performance, which, though accurate enough, is quite under-characterized. This is a common and understandable shortcoming of initial presentations of new works; perhaps subsequent performances will project the sonata’s meaning with more flair and eloquence. Nevertheless, Rosner’s Trombone Sonata is a compelling work, and an important contribution to the instrument’s limited repertoire.
I tend to find Rosner’s solo vocal music less interesting than his instrumental, choral, and chamber works. His language seems more constrained in his songs, and the sequences of short selections all using more or less the same devices become monotonous after a while. This is somewhat less true for Besos sin cuento (1989), as the scoring for low voice, flute, viola, and harp allows for a felicitous variety of color and texture. Much of Rosner’s vocal music draws upon texts that are naturally suited to the exotic, neo-archaic tendencies of his style, as in these six settings of light-hearted amorous verses from the Spanish Renaissance. Mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley displays an attractive voice with accurate intonation, although her enunciation is a bit compromised. The instrumentalists of the contemporary-music ensemble known as Pinotage provide fine support.
Although Arnold Rosner’s music is becoming increasingly well known, there are still plenty of pieces that remain undocumented on recording—far too many to enumerate here (the interested listener is referred to the composer’s Web site at www.phidler.com/rosner). However, of particular interest is the fifth of his six symphonies, a 40-minute work in the form of a mass for orchestra, using the Gregorian hymn Salve Regina as a cantus firmus. Familiar with the work through a tape of the 1975 premiere with the Colorado Philharmonic, I can assert confidently that (although there are other symphonic masses) there is nothing else quite like it in the repertoire. I wonder how the fans of Tavener and Pärt react to Rosner’s music. As must be apparent from the foregoing descriptions, his works offer many of the same timeless, spiritual qualities as theirs, while satisfying the listener’s preference for activity and a sense of progression."
Walter Simmons, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Besos sin cuento, Op. 86 by Arnold Rosner
Alison Attar (Harp),
Claudia Lasareff-Mironoff (Viola),
Janice MacDonald (Flute),
Julia Bentley (Voice)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1989; USA
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