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Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, February 2011

Bargain of the Month

George Rochberg is hardly a household name—on the UK side of the Atlantic, at least—so it’s good that Naxos has decided to rebrand and reissue this Gasparo disc of his piano music. As for Rochberg’s orchestral works, Derek Warby admired the First Symphonyreview—while in her liner-notes Sally Pinkas is just as enthusiastic about his piano pieces. How does this music strike the innocent ear? Given Rochberg’s early reputation as an avant-garde composer and the hint of formal rigour contained in the titles of these works, one might be tempted to file this music under D for difficult. Don’t, because after hearing it you’ll want to amend that to D for deeply satisfying.

The Israeli-born soloist Sally Pinkas has already contributed to other volumes in the Rochberg series, and on the strength of this one alone it’s clear she has a real affinity for this composer. Just sample the irrepressible—somewhat Lisztian—first movement of the Partita-Variations. Her playing is clean and uncluttered by undue emphasis or expressive moulding. The knotty Intermezzo with its repeated motif is subtly shaded. The open, natural recording helps immeasurably here, highlighting the crystalline qualities of Rochberg’s writing. But there’s humour in this music too, notably in Burlesca, which has the good sense to stay just this side of slapstick.

All very different from the more austere Cortege, with its sustained bass and spiky treble. Even those who usually shy away from such gnarled sounds can’t fail to be impressed both by the lucidity of Rochberg’s score and the focused, unfussy pianism. Just listen to the gentle rhythmic inflexions of Impromptu, the finely-controlled dynamics of The Deepest Carillon and the sheer elegance and fluidity of Tema: Ballade—what a remarkable blend of finesse and feeling. As for the Caprice Minuet and Canon, they are all beautifully crafted and well executed. The unfatiguing piano sound is a real boon in the music’s exposed passages. The Nocturne, Arabesque and Fuga a tre voce are no less beguiling; the nervy night music and staccatoed Arabesque especially so. As for the baroquerie of the final fugue—with its return to the cascades of the opening prelude—it’s a perfect summation of all that’s gone before.

Rochberg’s enduring fascination for Bach surfaces in the witty assonance of Nach Bach, written ten years earlier. It’s more tersely phrased than anything we’ve heard thus far, combining stylistic elements of the 17th and 20th centuries in a most artful and convincing way. Although intended for harpsichord or piano, I imagine the former would impart a much drier, more didactic flavour to this music, which clearly benefits from the colour and dynamic possibilities of the more versatile modern instrument. It’s an attractive piece, although not quite as fresh and open-faced as the Partita-Variations. Pinkas really revels in this music, and her attention to its many nuances and contrasts is admirable.

‘Dark and deeply anguished’ is how Pinkas describes the Sonata-Fantasia, written in 1956. It’s a tough, sinewy piece, rescued from relentlessness by Rochberg’s penchant for subtle textures and carefully shaded dynamics. The result is a display piece, a veritable peacock’s tail of eye-catching colours. That’s not to say Pinkas isn’t right about the music’s emotional subtext; it’s just that any such content is so tightly bound up with the musical structure that it’s hard to see where one begins and the other ends. Not the most grateful or engaging work on this disc, then, but certainly the most rigorous and intricately wrought.

Derek Warby declared Rochberg’s First Symphony a ‘major discovery’, a sentiment I’d happily echo where this piano collection is concerned. Given such strong, incisive, playing and more than enough variety and invention, an hour of this music is very easily managed in one sitting. Indeed, it’s a good piece of programming, combining the embraceable Partita-Variations with two works that, although somewhat aloof, are never unreachable. The recording—not always a Naxos strong point—is also excellent, but then I expect the credit for that lies with the original Gasparo engineers. If the other instalments are as good as this one, then I’d say they are a very welcome addition to the admirable and consistently rewarding Naxos series of American Classics.




Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, February 2011

George Rochberg is hardly a household name—on the UK side of the Atlantic, at least—so it’s good that Naxos has decided to rebrand and reissue this Gasparo disc of his piano music. As for Rochberg’s orchestral works, Derek Warby admired the First Symphonyreview—while in her liner-notes Sally Pinkas is just as enthusiastic about his piano pieces. How does this music strike the innocent ear? Given Rochberg’s early reputation as an avant-garde composer and the hint of formal rigour contained in the titles of these works, one might be tempted to file this music under D for difficult. Don’t, because after hearing it you’ll want to amend that to D for deeply satisfying.

The Israeli-born soloist Sally Pinkas has already contributed to other volumes in the Rochberg series, and on the strength of this one alone it’s clear she has a real affinity for this composer. Just sample the irrepressible—somewhat Lisztian—first movement of the Partita-Variations. Her playing is clean and uncluttered by undue emphasis or expressive moulding. The knotty Intermezzo with its repeated motif is subtly shaded. The open, natural recording helps immeasurably here, highlighting the crystalline qualities of Rochberg’s writing. But there’s humour in this music too, notably in Burlesca, which has the good sense to stay just this side of slapstick.

All very different from the more austere Cortege, with its sustained bass and spiky treble. Even those who usually shy away from such gnarled sounds can’t fail to be impressed both by the lucidity of Rochberg’s score and the focused, unfussy pianism. Just listen to the gentle rhythmic inflexions of Impromptu, the finely-controlled dynamics of The Deepest Carillon and the sheer elegance and fluidity of Tema: Ballade—what a remarkable blend of finesse and feeling. As for the Caprice Minuet and Canon, they are all beautifully crafted and well executed. The unfatiguing piano sound is a real boon in the music’s exposed passages. The Nocturne, Arabesque and Fuga a tre voce are no less beguiling; the nervy night music and staccatoed Arabesque especially so. As for the baroquerie of the final fugue—with its return to the cascades of the opening prelude—it’s a perfect summation of all that’s gone before.

Rochberg’s enduring fascination for Bach surfaces in the witty assonance of Nach Bach, written ten years earlier. It’s more tersely phrased than anything we’ve heard thus far, combining stylistic elements of the 17th and 20th centuries in a most artful and convincing way. Although intended for harpsichord or piano, I imagine the former would impart a much drier, more didactic flavour to this music, which clearly benefits from the colour and dynamic possibilities of the more versatile modern instrument. It’s an attractive piece, although not quite as fresh and open-faced as the Partita-Variations. Pinkas really revels in this music, and her attention to its many nuances and contrasts is admirable.

‘Dark and deeply anguished’ is how Pinkas describes the Sonata-Fantasia, written in 1956. It’s a tough, sinewy piece, rescued from relentlessness by Rochberg’s penchant for subtle textures and carefully shaded dynamics. The result is a display piece, a veritable peacock’s tail of eye-catching colours. That’s not to say Pinkas isn’t right about the music’s emotional subtext; it’s just that any such content is so tightly bound up with the musical structure that it’s hard to see where one begins and the other ends. Not the most grateful or engaging work on this disc, then, but certainly the most rigorous and intricately wrought.

Derek Warby declared Rochberg’s First Symphony a ‘major discovery’, a sentiment I’d happily echo where this piano collection is concerned. Given such strong, incisive, playing and more than enough variety and invention, an hour of this music is very easily managed in one sitting. Indeed, it’s a good piece of programming, combining the embraceable Partita-Variations with two works that, although somewhat aloof, are never unreachable. The recording—not always a Naxos strong point—is also excellent, but then I expect the credit for that lies with the original Gasparo engineers. If the other instalments are as good as this one, then I’d say they are a very welcome addition to the admirable and consistently rewarding Naxos series of American Classics.



Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, November 2010

This is the third disc in a series devoted to George Rochberg’s piano music. The first (Naxos 8.559631) features Pinkas and her husband, Evan Hirsch, playing the composer’s monumental cycle Circles of Fire, and the second (Naxos 8.559632) features Hirsch playing 12 Bagatelles, Three Elegiac Pieces, and Sonata Seria. I don’t know if Hirsch’s disc has been reviewed here yet, but the first disc was reviewed in Fanfare 33:6 by Peter Burwasser. Peter was not quite convinced by the music, writing, “My basic concern about the piece is that it is too long and ambitious.” He had no concerns about the performances, though.

All three of these Naxos discs are reissues of material that previously appeared on the Gasparo label in the late 1990s. The present disc was Gasparo GSCD-340/2. The works are performed in the order that they are given in the headnote—that is to say, in reverse chronological order. That makes a sort of sense, because the Partita-Variations (1976) is most accessible, Nach Bach (1966) is next most accessible, and the Sonata-Fantasia (1956) the least accessible. Listeners can ease themselves into Rochberg’s oeuvre with this disc.

The last part of Rochberg’s career found him freely combining styles, from the atonality he deeply explored in the 1950s, to the neoromanticism, neoclassicism, and use of quotation and near-quotation that came later. (Rochberg often is said to have changed his style as a composer following the untimely death of his son in 1961, but Rochberg didn’t shed his skin as much as he tried on many new layers, and often simultaneously.) The variation format is an excellent vehicle in which to exercise one’s polystylistic passions, and Rochberg is in rare form in the 35-minute Partita-Variations as he takes his material through many genres, including a gorgeous nocturne, in which ghosts of Chopin and Schumann both play a part.

Nach Bach, composed for Igor Kipnis, is, as its name suggests, based on Bach—specifically, on the Keyboard Partita No. 6. (Nach Bach also may be performed on the harpsichord, and I think I would enjoy hearing it that way at least once.) Interestingly, Nach Bach includes material that Rochberg later would incorporate into the Partita-Variations. Nach Bach is short (8:45) and increasingly quirky as it progresses. In fact, I feel that it is a little too short to reach its potential.

Dodecaphonic and structurally dense, the 24-minute Sonata-Fantasia is a difficult listen, but not more difficult than Boulez, for example, and probably readily approachable by listeners who have more or less mastered Schoenberg. Within a decade, Rochberg would be composing more engaging music, but there’s nothing developmentally immature about the Sonata-Fantasia, and it does carry the listener forward with the strength of its convictions. It is just the sort of work that benefits from repeated listening.

In reviewing Circles of Fire for another publication, I commented, “Naxos would do well to license Pinkas’s other Gasparo discs,” and so it has. I don’t know if Rochberg oversaw or reviewed these particular performances, but he and Pinkas did have a working relationship, and I can’t find anything to criticize about these performances.




Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, August 2010

I discovered George Rochberg back in 1972 when his Third String Quartet appeared; at the time I knew nothing about him except that everyone was making a huge deal about this work, an apparent “conversion” from serialism and atonalism to what would become one of the first “neo-romantic” compositions to appear. Well, I am not sure how well that appellation described Rochberg—romantic-eclectic would be a better label if we must use them. But it was rather prescient in that a number of avant-garde bad boys began a midlife conversion to the good side of the force, Penderecki among them.

I began seeking out his other works, and in a few years a boxed set of three quartets (4–6) appeared on RCA, another prize acquisition. His Violin Concerto garnered much deserved praise and Isaac Stern’s recording sealed the deal. Since that time I have always been a fan, and his Naxos recordings have become events for me. It is interesting as a side note that one of my other heroes, George Crumb, taught at the same University of Pennsylvania together with Rochberg.

Crumb is still very much kicking while Rochberg died five years ago at the ripe age of 87, and would be proud of his recorded legacy today. This is the third volume of Naxos’s dedicated to the piano music, and one of the most important—its spans from 1956 (the Sonata-Fantasia) to Nach Bach (1966) to the Partita-Variations (1976). The last is the most important in my mind, a unique and very accessible (though still challenging) piece that begins with a Praeludium and ends with a magnificent fugue, yet the theme of the work is hidden right in the middle, the variations spanning out on both sides like the plumage of a beautiful peacock. Rochberg’s eclecticism works to wondrous effect here, seamlessly integrating old and new in such a way as to almost define a new idiom.

Nach Bach is a piece that takes as its center the Partita No. 6 in E-minor, BWV 830, letting it rise and desist from the tonal palate in a way that is not too terribly unlike Alfred Schnittke. But where that composer’s olden melodies appear as from a misty haze and dissipate again, Rochberg’s music is demonstrably a tribute to the music of Bach, albeit in a form where atonality and non-metric impulses coexist and oppose Bach’s rigid and classical structures.

If one can imagine a piano work like Night Fantasies by Elliott Carter with a little more traditional formal scheme in place, the Sonata-Fantasia by Rochberg might be the result. This highly expressive and darkly-colored work bespeaks tragedy as much as anything he wrote, though I am not certain he would have agreed at the time he wrote it. As time moved on, the limits of the twelve-tone system became all too apparent, and those who embraced it, with the exception of some, created music that almost by nature seemed destined to be thought of as anguished and repressed. Schoenberg was able to avoid this, as were his Second Viennese School compatriots, but most American composers were trapped (Donald Martino’s Notturno comes to mind). Though the notes by Sally Pinkas speak of this piece as “anguished” I am not so sure—perhaps a lifetime of absorbing this type of music has opened me up to the possibility of different moods and emotions present in a foreign tonal system. What I do find is the bearing of one’s soul in this music, very expressive but also intimate in the sense of someone making a public confession of their entire life—all is laid bare. Where Carter dazzles us with his through-composed ecstasy, Rochberg asks us to consider things in a much more sober light, and the challenges are both rewarding and troubling, This is not easy music, but well worth the effort to absorb its mysteries—but start with the Partita-Variations first.

Sally Pinkas has mastered these work’s formidable hardships and is able to express them in a way that I think the composer would have been happy with, and the Naxos recording at the Spaulding Auditorium at Dartmouth University is everything one could ask for. Perhaps the Third String Quartet is still the best way to come to this composer, or the Violin Concerto—but oh, do come!






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