Notes and Editorial Reviews
Circles of Fire
Evan Hirsch, Sally Pinkas (pn)
NAXOS 8.559631 (70:20)
The late George Rochberg is a reasonably well-known composer, but he is certainly best known as the man who made tonalism acceptable again. It is a rather dramatic story, actually, perhaps suitable for a sort of post-Randian treatment, with the architect of
replaced by a composer. Rochberg was a leading serialist in his day, an early adopter in the post-World
War II frenzy of modernity, when musical Romanticism was deemed tainted by fascism, whose cultural fomenters made it their soundtrack. But when Rochberg’s world was struck by tragedy, with the death of his son from a brain tumor, he struggled to react artistically. Tonality would be his salve, culminating with his String Quartet No. 3, premiered in 1972, and the first appearance of his new style. His academic colleagues were stunned, but Rochberg unleashed a trend that continues to this day and is certainly flourishing.
This monumental two-piano work from the late period of Rochberg’s career is mainly but not exclusively tonal. There is even a splash of serial writing, and plenty of good old-fashioned dissonance. From a technical point of view, this is a compelling and instructive model for how to mix different harmonic languages in a cohesive way. This is an important point, because the real importance of Rochberg’s so-called conversion was not, as some would wish to believe, to render serialism obsolete, but to give composers a kind of permission to choose from a variety of styles. Another Rochberg signature that is included in this work is the use of quotations, in this case a vigorous and ingenious reworking of the theme from Bach’s
The Art of Fugue
, a stew of late Brahms, and a haunting whisper of Chopin at the very end of a long musical journey. My basic concern about the piece is that it is too long and ambitious, even though it is divided into 15 sections; there are moments where Rochberg seems to be reaching for the sublime solemnity of late Beethoven, an ideal out of reach for most mere mortals. Time and rehearing may resolve those concerns for this listener. Certainly, it is an extremely well constructed, thought-provoking, and frequently beautiful creation.
The Hirsch-Pinkas Duo commissioned and premiered
Circles of Fire
, which was first heard in 1997, eight years before the composer’s death. They play it with tremendous authority, and even a sense of majesty when the music calls for it. The recording has a fine, realistic perspective.
FANFARE: Peter Burwasser
Works on This Recording
Circles of Fire by George Rochberg
Hirsch-Pinkas Piano Duo
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1996-1997; USA
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