This disc is the companion of another CRI Rochberg disc documenting the composer's early, serial period, with two magnificent compositions: the First String Quartet and the Second Symphony (see my review of George Rochberg, Vol. 1). As a complement, it featured a piece written in 1965 by Rochberg as an act of mourning after the death of his son, and after he had moved away from serialism, finding that the method hampered his craving for expressivity in music.
Volume 2 is more of a mixed bag stylistically, a mixture of the early and forbidding serial (Duo Concertante, String Quartet No. 2) and the later and sometimes perplexingly simplistic tonal (Ricordanza, Slow Fires of Autumn).
The most forbidding and intractable composition here is the Second String Quartet, completed in 1961. Although its second part with soprano (entering at 12:24 and singing a poem by Rilke in an English translation) points to Schoenberg's Second SQ, from his own 1st to this 2nd Rochberg moved from Berg's Lyric Suite to the kind of serial music associated with Boulez. Not quite Babbitt, but still, dry and unappealing, abstract combinations of pitches - all you hate about serialism: and don't take me wrong, I am certainly not hostile to serialism per se, but I want the compositional technique to be put at the service of expression - which is what Rochberg did in other compositions, like his mighty 2nd Symphony. But this is the kind of piece, even when you are well disposed towards the avant-guarde, that you listen to with you head in your hands, trying to find reasons to convince yourself that it is good and meaningful music. But if you are candid to yourself, you simply don't like it, and find it pointless. Obviously Rochberg thought so too: no wonder (and fortunate) that he decided there was nowhere else to go in that direction. Rochberg claims that he introduced the voice to balance out things with "the concreteness which only the hman voice, singing a personally meaningful and expressive text, could lend". Well - sort of. The melodic line is the kind of jagged roller coaster thing with sharp angles typical of serial writing. For what it matters, soprano Janice Harsanyi sings her difficult lines remarkably well (these are the premiere performers, and the Quartet was recorded in 1962 shortly after its premiere).
Duo Concertante for Violin and Cello (a composition from 1955, revised in 1959), while still fairly thorny, is easier to swallow. One remarkable feature is that, if you didn't know, you might think it was a String Quartet or Trio: Rochberg's writing is remarkably full. The expressive universe is that of Schoenberg's Fantasy for Violin and Piano, but here still more vehement and angular, with moments of pained and stern lyricism.
Jump to Rochberg's future and his proposals are even more perplexing.
"Slow Fires of Autumn" from 1978-9 is the latest piece on the disc. It is a very pretty, very atmospheric duet for flute and harp, inspired by Japanese folk music, a stylistic and sonic universe that alternates with a kind of modern Debussy Sonata for flute-viola-harp. That it needed Rochberg to write pretty Japanese folk-music alternating with modernized Debussy is opened to question. It is pretty, though, and quite inoffensive.
"Ricordanza", for cello and piano, written in 1972, I find the most appalling piece on the disc. What is Rochberg trying to prove - that he can write another Schubert Arpeggione Sonata or a Brahms/Schumann pastiche? First, he can't - Schubert and Brahms are incomparably better, and his cello-piano piece sounds like hack 19th Century salon music; and second, even if he could, and so what? Was he then going to write a pastiche of a Mozart symphony and call it his 7th? There is something in music that is comparable to the issue of fake vs authentic with paintings. So you have this beautiful Rembrandt in your living room (I wish!) that has been in your family for centuries; and suddently the specialists decide that it isn't an authentic Rembrandt after all, but only "the school of". And all of a sudden, not only does it loose 9/10th of its market value and you your hopes for a comfortable retirement, but it looses the greatest part of its aura too. Still, it remains the same beautiful painting - It's all in your head, but the magic is gone.
Well, a serious contemporary composer can't just write and publish pastiches just because the music flows to his pen. Like it or not, he is heir to centuries of music, the music written before Schubert and all the music written after, and his compositions should be informed by all of that; even if he rejects some recent trends his music should show some awareness of them - not just try and ignore them. For me, Rochberg's Ricordanza is 13 minutes of waste - of my time listening to it, and much more of his time composing it, performers learning and playing it, publisher and label getting it out public.
As a whole, the disc is perplexing, then. In decreasing order of my preferences would be Duo Concertante, Slow Fires, then far behind SQ 2 and further still Ricordanza. But I don't think any represent Rochberg's various styles, either early or late, under their best light.
All the recordings sound good and TT is 73 minutes.