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Peter Burwasser
Fanfare, March 2011

Volume 4 of this Naxos retrospective of the piano music of George Rochberg presents a good representation of the late composer’s highly eclectic output. The Carnival Music is an example of his pastiche style, filled with strong dynamic and rhythmic contrasts, and allusions to, if not outright quotes of, other music. The title of the work may conjure a happy-go-lucky atmosphere, but Rochberg’s carnival has plenty of dark corners. Watch out for the creepy clowns. When writing in this manner, Rochberg set a high challenge, namely, can all of the disparate elements of the work, in this case a five-section suite, pull together in a cohesive way? To my ears, it is a stretch, as it usually is in this corner of Rochberg’s world. There is a good deal of very fine writing, especially in the dreamy middle section, as a Largo doloroso melts into Sfumato, appropriately so, as the title takes its name from a Renaissance painting style in which, in the composer’s words, “figures, shapes, objects emerged out of misty, veiled, dreamy backgrounds.” I’m not sure what this has to do with a carnival, but it is beautifully crafted music. The suite also contains solidly written circus marches, rags, and blues that are overtly imitative.

The Four Short Sonatas, completed in 1984, finds Rochberg firmly in command of his own voice, writing in the bold, modernistic style that made his early fame. As Sally Pinkas remarks in her usually perceptive notes, these works are conceived with a Scarlatti-like concision, yet contain a four-movement classical structure within a small space. In the third of the quartet, marked Allegro assai, the composer returns to full-blown tonality in a sort of homage to Haydn. There is a sense, in the later music of Rochberg (he died in 2005), that he relished the irony of such nostalgic gestures side by side with blistering chromaticism. It is widely misunderstood that Rochberg turned away from atonality in 1973 when he began to write tonal music, to the horror of his fellow academic serialists. He was merely making the completely sensible decision to abandon doctrinaire compositional rules. The biggest revelation for this listener in surveying this highly valuable series is how much more interesting and original his atonal music was throughout his career, even well after his so-called conversion.

Variations on an Original Theme is an early tour de force by the then 23-year-old composer. He himself liked it well enough to revise it in 1969, which is the version heard here. I find myself admiring Rochberg’s absorption of the Brahmsian model of grand theme and variations, with his broad range of dramatic constructions, but in the end, I really prefer to hear Brahms himself. Pinkas, as she has in the previous outings, plays with superb precision and insight.

Lawson Taitte
The Dallas Morning News, October 2010

George Rochberg invented neo-romanticism decades before it became fashionable. His string quartets that mixed modernism with homage to Beethoven caused a furor in the 1970s, but somehow the composer fell into relative neglect until his death in 2005. Recently Naxos has been reinvestigating much of his music—as in this series of pieces for one or two pianos, played by Sally Pinkas and her husband, Evan Hirsch. Pinkas, solo in this installment, plays with authority.

The three works epitomize the contrasts and paradoxes of Rochberg’s career. In Carnival Music, he rewrote and expanded some early pieces. The result melds modernism and boogie-woogie into a fairly coherent style. There are allusions to some famous musical carnivals, notably Stravinsky’s Petrushka, but there’s lots of jazz, too. The Four Short Sonatas, from a late point in Rochberg’s career, alternately soothe and invigorate. The Variations on an Original Theme, most surprising of all, is a very early work, reeking of Beethoven, Brahms and every romantic in between.

By that time, Rochberg said, he had stopped worrying about what people would say about style. In 2010, we’ve pretty much all stopped—so maybe his time has come at last.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2010

George Rochberg lived much of his long life with a troubled mind, a fact reflected in music that oscillates between extremes of happiness and despair. It came from two experiences: the first in his front-line service in the Second World War when he was badly wounded, and the second in the death of his 15-year-old son. The events leave the listener never sure as to the Rochberg they are about to experience. Born in New Jersey in 1918, he was deep into his studies as a composer when he was drafted into the US army. The dreadful sights he witnessed in Europe had a delayed effect, and on his return home his music was in the mood of relief, but he later expressed himself with sounds of uncompromising modernity. In the thick of that transformation we find Carnival Music composed in 1971, a score using popular music as its inspiration. Ranging from blues to rag-time, strong in rhythm and tunefulness, it is a most happy and pleasing score. More factually the Four Short Sonatas would be described as Four Short Sonata Movements, and come from the era of the Second Viennese School, its disjointed and wide mood swings not easy to enjoy. The year before his army draft, in 1941, he completed his Variations on an Original Theme, a score that would certainly make an ideal ‘guess the composer’ question. You would construe that it was certainly German, but it could be any one of a dozen different composers. That it is derivative of the high ideals of the romantic era in no way diminishes a well thought-through score from Rochberg aged 23. This is the fourth volume of his complete piano music from Sally Pinkas who is as much at home in the jazzy Carnival as in making good sense of the Short Sonatas.

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