About this Recording
8.559129 - ROCHBERG: Violin Concerto
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George Rochberg (b

George Rochberg (b. 1918): Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1974)

World Première Recording of the restored Original Version (2001)

 

George Rochberg was born in Paterson, New Jersey on 5th July, 1918. An accomplished pianist who worked his way through college playing in jazz bands in New York City, he began formal studies of composition in 1939 at the Mannes School of Music under Hans Weisse, George Szell and Leopold Mannes. He was seriously wounded during wartime service in Europe, subsequently resuming his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1945 with Rosario Scalero. From 1951 he was Director of Publications for the music publishing house Theodore Presser, in 1960 becoming Chairman of the Music Department at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1979 he was designated Annenberg Professor of the Humanities, retiring from the University in 1983.

 

Rochberg’s music has been honoured since his earliest substantial compositions, his Night Music receiving the George Gershwin Memorial Award in 1953. Since then, Naumberg Recording Awards, Guggenheim Fellowships, Honorary Doctorates, a Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, and Fulbright Scholarship in 1950-51 (the year in which he met and befriended Luigi Dallapiccola), the ASCAP Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000, and countless other honours have accumulated in ever greater profusion. In 1996 his manuscripts and papers were acquired for the archives at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland.

 

The key that will open George Rochberg’s music to the willing, the curious, but especially to the “innocent” ear, lies not in the conventional wisdom that declares him the first “post modernist” for his openness to a complex mix of musical languages, but rather in seeking to enter the composer’s extraordinary understanding of the nature of time.

 

As long ago as 1963, Rochberg, in The New Image of Music, wrote that the successive revolutions of twelve-tone composition and of the post-war avant-garde had brought about a liberation that “permits sounds to create their own context”. This liberation of sound from tonal harmonic functions, led to “the overthrow of a long-dominant temporal structure”; to a world in which conglomerates of pure sound are able to interact in ways that are not necessarily hidebound by structural considerations.

 

“Subjective man,” writes Rochberg, “views existence as change; himself and his history at the center of a process of becoming.. Subjective man cannot transcend time; he is trapped in it. However, when man seizes on the present moment of existence as the only ‘real’ time, he spatializes his existence; that is, he fills his present with objects that take on … a state of permanence.” Thus did the composer allow broader means of expression to be added to his vocabulary, constantly enlarging it, making possible what he later came to call an “all-at once world”.

 

By 1959, Rochberg was lionized as America’s first and greatest master of composition in a serial language. His 1955-56 Second Symphony, taken up and enthusiastically given its première by George Szell, seemed to lay out a path for him as one of the leaders of the American avant-garde, and yet, not even three years after its première, he was rethinking his language, already dissatisfied with the limitations of expressivity of the strict twelve-tone environment. Having mastered the idiom, he was far ahead of his time in seeking to go beyond it.

 

The oft-repeated assertion that it was predominantly personal tragedy that led Rochberg to abandon dodecaphony and embrace tonality, is not entirely borne out by the facts. His evolution towards a multiplicity of simultaneous languages was already well in train from his earliest compositions. Rochberg speaks of his use of twelve-tone techniques as engendering a “hard” Romanticism (kin, perhaps, to the works of Alban Berg) - one has only to look at the slow movement of the Second Symphony, Rochberg’s “serial” work par excellence, to see that the tone row yields music that alternates between melting, elegiac beauty and desperate explosions of anguish, ebullient self-confidence and profound tragedy. George Rochberg’s relationship with the past is thus not one of nostalgia: it is one of intimate, living familiarity. Indeed, he has said, in Reflections on the Renewal of Music, “History will not help us; but the past, which is ever-present, can”. One recalls, too, William Faulkner’s dictum : “the past - it is not even past!”

 

Rochberg is never about regret, borrowing or quotation (even if only quotation “in kind”). The Universal Mind, which is there to be embraced by a composer humble enough to deny ego and the flawed search for “originality” at all costs, transcends Time and Space. Denying individualism, seeing the creative artist as a representative of the endless procession of the human condition, the purveyor of our collective memory, allows the composer to gather the entirety of experience into a single, integrated language. “The hope of contemporary music”, writes Rochberg, “lies in learning how to reconcile all manner of opposites, contradictions, paradoxes; the past with the present, tonality with atonality. That is why, in my most recent music, I have tried to utilize these in combinations which reassert the primal values of music.”

 

In the words of the Washington Post,

 

“Rochberg presents the rare spectacle of a composer who has made his peace with tradition while maintaining a strikingly individual profile …… he succeeds in transforming the sublime concepts of traditional music into contemporary language.”

 

George Rochberg’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra has been one of his most frequently heard and most enthusiastically received works, being played 47 times by Isaac Stern, who instigated its commission, between 1975 and 1977. Commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in memory of Donald Steinfirst, esteemed music critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it was also recorded by Stern and that orchestra under André Previn in 1977. The seventh of that long run of performances took place at Carnegie Hall on 14th April, 1975, to a sold-out audience, many of whom had formed a queue around the block as far as 56th Street, seeking last-minute tickets. Puzzlingly, it was following this enormously successful performance that Isaac Stern began to request changes that resulted eventually in cuts totalling some fourteeen minutes. The influential violinist felt that the work was “too long and taxing, both for the violinist and for the audience”. Consequently, the composer’s manuscript reads like a litany of frustration and fatigue; the score ultimately signed as a “final” version in June 1976, carries no less than seven corrected and crossed-out dates of completion. Nineteen pages of score, in all, were deleted, not to speak of adjustments (simplifications) of quadruple stops, rewriting of some solo material into the orchestra, and so on.

 

I had been dimly aware that the work had undergone some changes at Stern’s instigation, but it was only when the Naxos project got under way and I began to prepare in earnest that the dimensions of the work’s dismemberment became apparent. Late in 2000, Rochberg’s former composition student, the composer Stephen Jaffe, told me how anguished George had been at the time of the early performances of the Violin Concerto. Armed with the determination that this gave me, I proposed a possible restoration of the “original version” of the score. Rochberg reacted as if a long-lost friend had turned up from prisoner-of-war camp, a mixture of caution with intense excitement, hardly daring to believe the possibility, with a rushing back of love for something believed lost.

 

To my astonishment, lengthy investigations revealed that merely a single copy of the complete score survives. Rochberg had long since given his entire archive to public institutions, and latterly, to the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel. I hastily copied the missing segments into pencil short score over a couple of days, and promptly mailed these to Rochberg. His response was immediate and unequivocal : “Put it all back!” As I commenced this task, beyond merely restoring cuts I recognised that some of the changes were indeed “improvements”, the kind of minor adjustments almost every composer makes after a first set of performances (most famously Mahler, to his publisher’s and engraver’s dismay). Therefore I consulted closely with George Rochberg at every stage, to arrive at a conflated score that represents his final wishes. By January 2002 I was able to begin to produce orchestral materials, that would be used at the triumphant public première of the restored score, with the composer present,  at the Kongresshalle, Saarbrücken, on March 17th, 2002. At this stage, too, close collaboration with Peter Sheppard Skærved was both inspiring and utterly invaluable. Nothing is impossible for this marvellous musician, who seeks out the composer’s vision, comprehends it, and will spare no amount of perspiration to hear it realised.

 

The Concerto for Violin is perhaps the perfect expression of Rochberg’s dialectic between a twelve-tone “hard” Romanticism and an elegiac, lyrical, tonal manner : the whole expressive, yet never indulgent; passionate, yet stringently argued. In the old Stern recording, the first and fifth movements open in the same way, with the soloist’s overarching, anguished cry to attention. The restored opening to the fifth movement postpones this altercation, making of it a Brucknerian “reversed recapitulation” that grows out of tutti material that has only been heard once before, some forty minutes earlier, and the way is prepared, too, for the gorgeous circling and rising triplet figure with which the soloist will bring some sense of resolution to this mammoth work.

 

This Concerto is in its entirety more true to the concept of this tortured form than almost any work in the repertoire; never a display piece, the soloist can be compared to the lone voice of humanity pitting itself against the cosmos, which is uncaring because unaware, therefore neither bad nor good, merely neutral. The violinist alternately leads and pleads, yells his anguish and anger, subdues the mass of instruments, whips them up into a fury again. The beautiful ending is one of resignation and quiet; no-one has “won”, but something ineffable has been revealed.

 

Christopher Lyndon-Gee

 

 

I first heard Rochberg’s Violin Concerto when I was a ten-year-old, in the classic Stern recording. From the first outburst from Stern’s fiddle, the ‘great barbaric yawp’ which begins the concerto, I was transfixed, and terrified. It suddenly dawned on me that I had absolutely no idea what went on in the world of music, the world beyond my school, beyond the suburbs in which I was growing up. Until I heard the Rochberg Concerto, I never realised that the violin could be so aggressive, sexual, rhapsodic, pleading, bullying, warlike, sentimental, or so damn frightening. This was my introduction to the music of my time, my first clue that there was a real world out there, beyond the leafy suburbs where I was growing up.

 

I was aware even then, however, that there was some kind of problem with the work as I heard it. Whilst I could call to mind any of the dynamic coups de théâtre, timbres and lush melody of the concerto, I simply could not recall the order things arrived. My puzzlement increased studying Rochberg’s music, and later through meeting and working with him. George will sing every note of his works, illustrated with bird-like hand-waving, in order to ensure that he really gets the shapes, the drama and intensity that his music demands. He will hold an anacrusis in the air between finger and thumb, as you play, daring you to be the first to break the line or betray an emotion. For Rochberg, just as for Bartók, Beethoven or Frank Martin, the tiniest and largest gestures bear the same fundamental imprimatur, just as the signature of a beautiful rugged coastline is fundamentally constant, seen from whatever altitude.

 

It was a great relief to receive the reconstituted concerto from Christopher Lyndon-Gee. Instead of a series of colourful tableaux, a sweep of inevitable development was revealed, not unlike Beethoven’s Op. 131 Quartet, Sibelius’ Voces Intimæ or indeed, George’s own Third Quartet. It suddenly made sense. Along with this restoration of structural unity, came out a coherence that had eluded me in the past, the sense of prolepsis, a natural ebb and flow to the drama. This lent ease to learning this giant, rendering even the most fearsome precipices approachable, even inviting, and revealing to me the intimacy that is at the heart of this monumental work.

 

Peter Sheppard Skaerved


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