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Penguin Guide, January 2009

George Rochberg was born in New Jersey, became an accomplished pianist and worked his way through college playing in jazz bands. While serving in the Second World War he was seriously wounded, and that experience undoubtedly underpins his early music, especially Black Sounds. After the war he studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and, like many of his generation, he began composing as a serialist, eventually to tonality.

His magnificent Fifth Symphony (1984–5) is expressive yet never indulgent; passionate yet stringently argued. Opening boldly and assertively, it is continuous and in seven major sections. The music is both hard-driven and evocatively lyrical while the otherworldly finale brings a dreamily withdrawn cello solo, until the closing section reality takes over.

The formidable Black Sounds (1965) is based on an earlier composition, Apocalyptica, for large wind ensemble, piano and percussion, whose score is headed by a Shakespeare quotation, calling up the tempest from King Lear. Stark and emotionally spare, it makes a powerful statement about human violence. After the climax, the epilogue closes the work gently in muted cries of anguish.

But it is with the masterly Transcendental Variations for string orchestra that the newcomer to Rochberg’s music should begin any exploration. Written in 1975, it was the composer’s first work to embrace tonality without reserve, and it is derived from his Third String Quartet, written three years earlier.

All three performances here are marvelously played by the Saarbrücken Radio Orchestra under Christopher Lyndon-Gee, who seems to find a total affinity with the composer. The recording is first class, too, and this is a record not to be missed by anyone who cares about real 20th-century music.

Paul Ingram
Fanfare, June 2004

"The Variations stand apart on this Naxos disc...The sound is full and detailed, and the horns are atmospheric, in the long, quiet "calling" section... this disc is well worth the money if you like the sound of the other, very different pieces."

Stephen Ellis
Fanfare, November 2003

Rochberg’s Fifth Symphony…powerful work ever since. Its magnificent opening statement evolves in ever fascinating ways, as ideas constantly twist and turn…the Fifth Symphony is a marvel. The performance thankfully matches the music in intensity and musicianship. Bravo, Naxos. © 2003 Fanfare Read complete review on Fanfare

David Hurwitz, August 2003

David Patrick Stearns
The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 2003

"At last, the...earnest fifth symphony of Philadelphia-based George Rochberg is on disc, and it's lost none of its punch since the mid-1980s, when it was written. It hails from Rochberg's late period, when he truly seemed to be playing with fire, with results that are often unsettling, but richly reward repeated pondering. The rest of the disc gives a Rochberg cross-section: Black Sounds, from the mid-1960s, eloquently captures the impending turmoil of America in that period."

David Hurwitz, July 2003

The notes to this recording make much of George Rochberg's braveness in the early 1960s in turning his back on strict academic serialism and atonality. Instead he dared to evolve a more nuanced, eclectic, personal style of expression in which tonal and atonal elements rub shoulders in a way that often comes across as sounding simply Romantic, in the best sense of the term. Without diminishing that achievement, in this less doctrinaire time the more important question is simple: How good is the music? We've been unable to answer this question because, aside from his string quartets, very few recordings have given us the chance to judge for ourselves. So this Naxos release is extremely important in that for many record collectors it will represent a first encounter with this seminal figure in 20th century American music--and it's magnificent.

The Fifth Symphony contains elements that many will find familiar: clear references to the finale of Mahler's Ninth and the Largo of Shostakovich's Fifth, aggressively virtuosic brass writing (it was a Chicago Symphony commission), a compelling mixture of dissonance and consonance, and an overtly emotional program apposing music of aggression with passages of sadness and consolation. It's all organized in a single movement whose multiple sections offer a gripping but easy-to-follow pattern of tension and release. To call the work a masterpiece doesn't begin to suggest its immediacy and impact: the symphony simply "goes" with the inevitability of fate itself, and its 28 minutes seem to pass by in a flash. Christopher Lyndon-Gee and the Saarbrucken orchestra give the music all of the intensity and passion that it needs, and they're marvelously well recorded too.

Black Sounds dates from 1965, and as the title suggests it's a darker, more abrasive work than the symphony. Inspired by the death of the composer's friend Edgard Varese, the music pays respectful homage without ever descending to mere imitation. In particular, the scoring for 12 winds and brass, piano, celesta, and four percussionists clearly brings Varese to mind, as does the music's violence and boundless energy. Standing at the opposite end of the harmonic spectrum, the gorgeously tonal Transcendental Variations for string orchestra consists of a reworking of the central movement of Rochberg's Third String Quartet, the breakthrough work in his mature style. Like the symphony, both works receive committed and compelling performances from Lyndon-Gee and his German forces.

Naxos has done some yeoman work in its American Classics series, but it's hard not to acclaim this release as one of the most important yet, not just for the excellence of its performances, the fine sonics, or even the marvelous music itself, but also in the human sense of doing some justice at last to a courageous composer whose importance is generally acknowledged but far too seldom confirmed by actual performance of his music. If this disc leads to further interest in Rochberg, then it will have achieved a greater purpose beyond gratifying a limited number of modern music enthusiasts. In the meantime, by all means, buy this and be gratified!

John von Rhein
Chicago Tribune

"This pair of Naxos releases restores to circulation two large-scale symphonic works from the 1970s and '80s by George Rochberg, one of America's most honored living composers. Both the Violin Concerto and Fifth Symphony are post-modernist works that mirror his late conversion to a style that draws on a complex of musical languages, including tonality and atonality.

The Violin Concerto was commissioned for Isaac Stern, who gave the premiere and recorded the work in 1. What makes the Naxos version noteworthy is that it is the first recording to restore some 14 minutes of music, about 19 pages of score in all, that Stern had asked the composer to delete because he felt the piece was too long and taxing for all concerned. This version also incorporates some minor improvements Rochberg made to the score when he undertook the cuts for Stern.

The full-length concerto is long, indeed -- nearly 52 minutes -- and does at times seem to stretch its post-Mahlerian gestures to the breaking point. But if you've got the time, Rochberg's now-anguished, now-soothing lyricism, tied to an existential subtext of man trapped in an unfeeling universe, compels you to pay attention to the very end. It is very beautifully played under Christopher Lyndon-Gee, without whose valiant efforts to rehabilitate the original score this recording would not exist.

The Fifth Symphony surfaces for the first time since Georg Solti led the Chicago Symphony, which commissioned it to celebrate Chicago's sesquicentennial, in its world premiere in 1986. Naxos' budget price makes both discs well worth having, particularly if you're an American music completist. Rounding out the second one is "Black Sounds" and a sumptuous string-orchestra transcription of the Variations from Rochberg's Third String Quartet."

Neil Horner
MusicWeb International

"This is a useful introduction to the work of the living American composer George Rochberg, whose name only previously meant much to me for a Violin Concerto recorded by Isaac Stern with the Pittsburgh Symphony under Previn. It is made more desirable by the fact that two of the works are given their first recordings here, and in some style by Christopher Lyndon-Gee, whose previous Naxos disc was a superb Varese anthology. Fittingly, this one includes Black Sounds, written in 1965 as homage to the great French-American iconoclast.

The Symphony is the most recent work and consists of a single movement of seven distinct but connected sections. The Opening Statement gets the work off to a breakneck start and is very filmic in its evocations, not a million miles in some ways from the aforementioned Varese. The music then alternates between more subdued Episodes, three in all, and again more rhythmic, driven Developments. The horn music in the second Episode is rightly singled out by the conductor's booklet notes as being "hauntingly beautiful" - echoes of Mahler and even Wagner are heard here. The third episode is almost Feldmanesque in its muted, slow bell-like tones, contrasting completely with the urgent, insistent Finale, although even here a sense of uneasy peace is restored temporarily by a poetic, elegiac and very long cello solo. "The power and sweep" of the piece as a whole are self evident, but we are a very long way from American symphonies such as the open air Harris 3rd which is often described with similar language. It is not surprising that a German orchestra was used for the recording because Rochberg's muse is probably as close as you can get, within the 20th century American canon, to the Central-European tradition.

Black Sounds, perhaps contrary to expectations of some jazz inflected workout, is based on a piece for wind ensemble and percussion, Apocalyptica, which was prefaced by some elemental lines from King Lear. It was commissioned for and first performed as a ballet called The Act, about, surprise, surprise, an act of murder, so you probably get the general gist of the piece. Again the word "filmic" springs to mind, as belching brass and hyperactive percussion drive the music forward before some quieter but still insistent passages make an appearance. I suppose the dedication to Varese is apt, with the music lying somewhere between Stravinsky and Birtwistle! Stimulating listening but tunes are at a premium!

In contrast, Transcendental Variations, a reworking for string orchestra of the slow movement of Rochberg's 3rd String Quartet, is a much smoother, more tonal listening experience, showing how far the composer had moved in the ten years since Black Sounds. The seven variations find the composer at his most Mahlerian with a full, romantic sound imbued with a resigned melancholy. Lovers of the Strauss of Metamorphosen and the Wagner of the Siegfried Idyll will surely also find much to entice them here, particularly in the valedictory final variation. The transcendental of the title is in the sense of time and also, I feel, the transience of human experience. Although rather more richly orchestrated than is usual to this listener's taste there is no denying the sheer beauty and emotion at work. If you thought Barber's Adagio was unique piece as far as American music goes then think again!"

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