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Peter Burwasser
Fanfare, July 2010

The late George Rochberg is a reasonably well-known composer, but he is certainly best known as the man who made tonalism acceptable again. It is a rather dramatic story, actually, perhaps suitable for a sort of post-Randian treatment, with the architect of Atlas Shrugged replaced by a composer. Rochberg was a leading serialist in his day, an early adopter in the post-World War II frenzy of modernity, when musical Romanticism was deemed tainted by fascism, whose cultural fomenters made it their soundtrack. But when Rochberg’s world was struck by tragedy, with the death of his son from a brain tumor, he struggled to react artistically. Tonality would be his salve, culminating with his String Quartet No 3, premiered in 1972, and the first appearance of his new style. His academic colleagues were stunned, but Rochberg unleashed a trend that continues to this day and is certainly flourishing.

This monumental two-piano work from the late period of Rochberg’s career is mainly but not exclusively tonal. There is even a splash of serial writing, and plenty of good old-fashioned dissonance. From a technical point of view, this is a compelling and instructive model for how to mix different harmonic languages in a cohesive way. This is an important point, because the real importance of Rochberg’s so-called conversion was not, as some would wish to believe, to render serialism obsolete, but to give composers a kind of permission to choose from a variety of styles. Another Rochberg signature that is included in this work is the use of quotations, in this case a vigorous and ingenious reworking of the theme from Bach’s The Art of Fugue, a stew of late Brahms, and a haunting whisper of Chopin at the very end of a long musical journey…certainly, it is an extremely well constructed, thought-provoking, and frequently beautiful creation.

The Hirsch-Pinkas Duo commissioned and premiered Circles of Fire, which was first heard in 1997, eight years before the composer’s death. They play it with tremendous authority, and even a sense of majesty when the music calls for it. The recording has a fine, realistic perspective.

Gapplegate Music Review, March 2010

American composer George Rochberg (1918–2005) had his period of “high modernism,” where stylistically unified works were carefully crafted using expanded tonality-atonality in the various ways that twelve-tone and serialist methods worked themselves out in the American new music scene of the ’50s and ’60s. He composed some very sonoristic, almost lyrical high-modern music and gained some amount of recognition in the first phase of his career. Then beginning I believe sometime in the late ’60s he began circling back to earlier musical styles, the more tonal echelons of musical practice, from the Euro tradition of music through the late romantic period as well as American vernacular idioms. He combined any number of stylistic references in a work, including the “modern.” Most importantly he did this with a kind of synthetic inventiveness where the wholeness of each piece was never in doubt.

This leads us to 1996–97, and his sprawling opus for two pianos, Circles of Fire. Naxos has embarked on an extensive release cycle of Rochberg’s works for solo piano. The first CD is a recording of the above mentioned work, by the Hirsch-Pinkas Piano Duo. The performance is ravishing.

The music? It models Rochberg’s later musical aesthetic by means of an intricate musico-cosmic metaphor. Circles of Fire is a massive, spiralling set of 15 movements, which Rochberg likens to the circling cycles of fire that create the principal bodies of the universe, then subject those bodies to the physical-temporal loops, symmetries and recurrences that comprise the playing out of intergalaxial systems.

Rochberg here conceives of, and realizes music in this manner, as a circling back to earlier musical styles and a cycling through to the returning “modern” present.

And so Circles of Fire makes alive this idea through a long symmetrical loop of musical movements, beginning in a “modern” style, on to “pan-tonal,” rhythmically archaic sounds, almost ragtime, then onwards through musical forms that suggest older classical styles, romantic tone poems, impressionist color sketches, and other reference points as well, eventually coming full circle to the beginning point of the cycle.

This would all be well and good and rather pointless if the music itself did not have some inner compulsion and inter-relatedness. This music does. It is music that revels in each moment with memorable movements that cycle from forte stridency to the most pianissimo tenderness, all the time showing Rochberg’s uncanny knack for incorporation and transformation. Everything is up for utilization, but it is the manner of going about it that shows Rochberg’s substantial compositional gifts.

I’m not sure if it would be fair to say that Rochberg has gotten his due, that his reputation is quite what it deserves to be. Anyone who listens closely to this beautiful performance of Circles of Fire will find an entire universe (literally and metaphorically) of enchanting music to be savored sensually and to be understood cognitively. His reputation can only be forwarded by this release. The fine art of modern pianism appears in all its manifold glory on this disk. Need I say more?, March 2010

There is no more ambitious work in the two-piano literature than Circles of Fire by George Rochberg (1918–2005). Written in 1996–7 for the Hirsch-Pinkas Piano Duo, it is a 15-movement, 70-minute tour de force of musical language, particularly in the 20th century but also, to some extent, dating back to Bach and before. Opening and closing with a “Solemn Refrain” that also appears three other times and knits the sprawling work into a somewhat more unified whole, Rochberg’s piece explores his own musical journey—from the modernism and serial composition at which he was highly skilled (as in his Symphony No. 2 from the mid-1950s), through his decision to turn against what he saw as academic and unemotional compositional techniques and use the approaches of Romanticism to convey feelings that he felt were neglected in serialism. Never really a neo-Romantic, Rochberg made post-Romantic emotionalism his own through his accretive technique, and in Circles of Fire he shows just how thoroughly he assimilated both older-style and newer-style pianistic writing as well as elements of the compositional process. The work is an arch, its eighth (middle) movement being the third appearance of “Solemn Refrain” and its second and 14th movements designated “Chiaroscuro (I)” and “Chiaroscuro (II).” In between are elements tied formally to the Baroque (“Canonic Variations,” “The Infinite Ricercar,” “Fuga a sei voci”) but expressed in Rochberg’s own musical vocabulary, which ranges from the carefully ordered to the near-chaotic (thus paralleling musical history itself). Evan Hirsch and Sally Pinkas play this monumental work sure-handedly and with tremendous understanding, and this recording—a re-release of a performance from 1998—deserves to be described as definitive.

Cinemusical, March 2010

George Rochberg (1918–2005) was one of those composers whose name you ran across back in the 1980s and 1990s. Depending on what coast you studied on his music was either raised up, or dismissed. This had a lot to do with ones experience of American serialist composers of which Rochberg was originally one and whether or not one was willing to follow his embracing of more tonal expression after the mid-1960s. By the time Rochberg came to write Circles of Fire in 1996–1997 he was quite capable of discovering ways to meld both expressively. Sometimes serialists who stray from strict writing tend to create music that is more pointillistic aurally. The result can be a series of seemingly disjoint musical phrases but often of a highly expressive nature. It can also result in what seems like utter chaos. Rochberg also was an early proponent of quotation and collage; that is borrowing segments, themes, or ideas from past classics and inserting them in different ways into his own work. All of these things are on display in the present work. The expressiveness of this particular piece in the hands of the Hirsch-Pinkas duo is what helps create the bridge necessary to enter into this strange mostly atonal world.

A long time ago a new composer revealed to me that he had written a 45 minute piano sonata of which he was very proud. As a public radio programmer I honestly had to tell him that this would be a hard piece to get much airplay as even under the best of circumstances some other shorter piece or more traditional work would always win out over a new work. Imagine then how most classical music stations will be challenged to find time for this 70 minute duo piano piece!

Rochberg’s piece is filled with 15 mostly brief sections. The work is book ended by a “Solemn Refrain” which helps delineate larger segments of the piece in three interior placements. The first “Chiaroscuro” is an arch-like piece of mostly atonal writing which is followed by a strictly serial “Canonic Variations.” The fourth movement, “Gioco del fuoco” has a great deal of Bartókian playfulness and flirts with tonality in what is the first of the four longer segments at 7 minutes. It is one of the more engaging and stronger movements of the piece. Overall the longer movements are signposts of a sort, this one seeming to focus on chaos of which pianist has the more important material. “Nebulae” is a “free” chance composition with the music allowing both performers and listeners a lengthy repose from the nervous energy that has come before it. It is at the center of the piece and is composed without meter or note values with the duration being determined by the performers. “Sognando” is a slow-moving piece of semi-quotation music with quotations from Brahms Clarinet Sonata, Op. 120, no. 1 and the Intermezzo, Op. 118, no. 4. Here the music is stretched out beyond imagining with a rather dreamlike quality that sometimes is reminiscent of a pianist working slowly through a piece of music. The post-romantic feel of this movement seems out of place in its surroundings but Rochberg’s structural need for this anchor in Romanticism is a perfect match for the fugue (with quotations from Bach), canon, ricercar (a rather short piece of repetitive music that continuously loops until the performers tire of it, hence its title “The Infinite Ricercar”), and other suggestive musical titles and forms explored in the monumental work.

In short, Circles of Fire is a monumental and essential work that encapsulates the different musical expressions of Rochberg’s output. It manages to traverse various musical periods from the Renaissance to the present through the way individual movements are structured or even in the musical language used to communicate Rochberg’s ideas. It may not be the first piano disc you turn to, but there is much to be discovered in this music that a score will help reveal to music students. Though deeply-conceived, the piece still is more than a cerebral musical exercise…

Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News, March 2010

George Rochberg was one of the most fascinating—and important—American composers of the last half of the 20th century. He was one of the first composers in the serial orthodoxy to abandon serialism and 12-tone composition in general as being woefully inadequate to what his music needed to do (He attributed his apostasy to his teenage son’s death and serialism’s inability to convey his anger and grief). His statement about the vaguely Messiaenesque and Scriabinesque “Circle of Fire”—which comes from the composer’s late 70s (he died at 87 in 2005)—is this: “there is a fire in the brain, in the mind, which comes from the universal fire that makes solar systems and galaxies, asteroid belts and comets, huge orbiting spirals, circles, loops that bend back on themselves in giant symmetries and stream out across millions of miles in giant asymmetries. What we humans call music is the perfect expression of this utterly fantastic image.” And if that isn’t a cosmic origin for music a la Scriabin and Messiaen, nothing is. One movement alone, the 7-minute “Gioco del Fuoco” (game of fire) seems to me something that would be a stunning addition to the repertoire of any modern piano duo. Remarkable music.

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