This is an outstanding CD. It consists of three orchestral works by the contemporary American composer, George Rochberg (b. 1916), including world premiere recordings of his Symphony No. 5 and his Transcendental Variations. The Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christopher Lyndon-Gee offer impassioned, convincing performances. Lyndon-Gee's liner notes for the CD are insightful and informative. The CD comes at a budget price as part of the Naxos "American Classics" series.
But the overriding reason to hear this CD is Rochberg's music. During a long compositional career, Rochberg has used many styles ranging from atonality to traditional diatonic music. This disc has examples of several different combinations of tonal and atonal music. For all their stylistic differences, the music on this CD has a passionate, visceral appeal, combined with a discipline and tautness resulting from attention to musical form. Lyndon-Gee's liner notes aptly use the term "hard romanticism" to describe this music.
The highlight of this CD is Rochberg's infrequently heard Symphony No. 5 (1984-1985) which is here recorded for the first time. This is a symphony of about 28 minutes which consists of a single movement. The symphony divides into 7 separate sections which Rochberg weaves together without pause. Sections of passionate, tumultuous, dissonant music alternate with three plaintive, reflective episodes. There is a hypnotic use of repetition and variation of simple musical phrases in this symphony. The work opens with a falling two-note figure which is repeated over and over again with increasing intensity to a chorus of brass. The symphony's orchestration is stunning. The work features effective use of solos, particularly for brass, for oboe and flute and for violin and cello. Percussion is used with great effect particularly in the development sections. There is an intriguing section with bells gonging behind solos for flute and oboe. The music is highly dramatic, and comes to full stops at several critical moments. The concluding, climactic section of the work features repetition of a swirling figure in the strings surrounded by brass. There is a rising cresendo in a string tremelo, which brings the work to a sudden dramatic end.
The second work on the CD, "Black Sounds" (1965) also appears on a Naxos disc of Rochberg's music featuring the Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Rose. This work was written for the performance of a ballet on public television titled "The Act" which is about a murder. The music is ominous with march-like figures in a blaring brass choir to the incessant beating of the tympani. This is intense music with a feeling of the bizarre and a real sense of disorientation. The work progresses to a slow desolate section with the winds seemingly talking back and forth to one another. Then there is a return to beating tympani, squacking winds, and curdling brass as, apparently, the evil deed is done, concluding with a quiet fade-away. To me, the performance of the work on this CD shows greater intensity than does the performance by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. But both performances are excellent and the music bears the two separate performances.
The final work on the CD, Rochberg's "Transcendental Variations" (1975), derives, Lyndon-Gee tells us, from Rochberg's Third String Quartet (1971-1972). This is a work for string orchestra alone and it is in seven short movements. Unlike the other two works on the CD, this music is tonal and character. Lyndon-Gee describes this music as "ecstatic". The work is slow and reflective in character with long flowing lines in the strings. The orchestration varies from sections in which the high and low strings alternate with each other to sections in which they play in unison. The music has a tranquil, elevated character. Portions of it sound almost baroque -- a contemporary, highly sophisticated 20th century Pachbel's Canon. The second and fifth movements of this music consists of gracious, bittersweet dancelike themes, which extend with great delicacy even though each of the movements is only about two minutes in length. This music is indeed mystical, transcendental, and moving.
Altogether this is a first-rate CD.