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Glyn Pursglove
MusicWeb International, June 2011

Although I have listened a good few times to the music on this disc, I am not sure I have made much progress in the attempt to discover a distinctive musical personality, or a sense of coherent development, in the work of a composer to whose work I had previously paid little attention. But I have—by and large—enjoyed what I have heard and would readily extend the experiment by hearing more of his music.

Roger is an eclectic and a musician who is obviously steeped in the music of the past and—to some extent—the present. The eclecticism, the movement from one musical idiom to another between and within works, may reflect something of Roger’s temperament; perhaps it was a conscious aesthetic choice; or perhaps it reflects something of the disrupted nature of his musical life. For Roger was one of those many Central European musicians whose life and perhaps his sensibilities were profoundly affected by the Second World War. Born in Vienna, Roger studied music in that city with the musicologist Guido Adler, and with the composer Karl Weigl as well as with Schoenberg—two more who were obliged by the rise of Hitler to leave Austria. Between 1923 and 1938 he taught at the Vienna Conservatory, and his own compositions were frequently performed. But in 1938, in the face of the Anschluss, all of that was destroyed, and he made his way to America via London and Ireland, where he met his Irish wife-to-be. He became an American citizen in 1945, and taught at a number of American institutions. In later years he made a number of visits to Austria, teaching in Vienna, Salzburg and elsewhere. It was while on a visit to Austria that he died in August 1966.

All the music heard on this disc was written after Roger’s initial departure from Austria. The earliest work is the Piano Sonata, made up of three movements headed Toccata-Interlude-Phantasmagoria. The whole is attractive—the Interlude is particularly intriguing, in the use it makes of rocking chords in conversation with some dark figures in the bass—and would surely appeal to those who like, say, Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata, written later in the same decade. Variations on an Irish Air is very astutely and delicately scored—of Roger’s high competence there is never any doubt. It contains some passages of real beauty as in the opening for unaccompanied flute. The air in question is ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ and though this may not be the most ambitious of Roger’s works, its range of mood and manner makes it constantly engaging. There is little that would make one think of Vienna in this excellent set of twelve variations. Vienna, on the other hand, is a clear presence in the two works not yet discussed—the Piano Trio and the Clarinet Quintet. But two different eras of Viennese music are evoked though it seems to be in Roger’s nature as a composer that neither work is entirely dominated by its obvious influences. In the Piano Trio Roger certainly remembers, and skilfully deploys, the classical forms of the Viennese greats. At times the use of counterpoint can seem a little dry, but there are also some lyrical melodies and an almost Haydnesque rusticity in the third movement. In the Clarinet Quintet, Roger’s last completed composition, classical clarity is replaced by a late-romantic manner that owes something to both Mahler and Schoenberg…and perhaps to the instruction of Weigl back in the composer’s youth. This is full of dense textures, textures which express a mood both melancholy and nostalgic, the lower end of the clarinet’s range being particularly well used in music which highlights no one of the five instruments with any consistency—this is no mini-concerto for clarinet—and which is built in complex and intricate fashion. The result isn’t always easy listening but it has a real power.

So far as I can judge—not being familiar with the music other than in these recordings—these are uniformly good performances; as, indeed, one would expect from these performers. The Gould Piano Trio are, by now, Naxos regulars and will be familiar to British followers of chamber music, heard live and/or on disc. Emily Beynon—who I first heard when she was a schoolgirl in South Wales, when she showed every sign of becoming the major instrumentalist she now is—makes an impressive contribution to the Variations, joining two members of the Gould Trio. Not, incidentally, that the Welsh connections finish there—I write as a Yorkshireman long resident in Wales; Robert Plane is Principal Clarinet of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and David Adams—who joins him as viola player in the Quintet—is, since he is also a fine violinist, Leader of the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera. Both Plane and Adams have joined the Gould Trio on previous Naxos recordings and there is, indeed, a sense of comfortable mutuality to the playing here—part of what enables all concerned to make an interesting case for a composer who, I suspect—my evidence for such a claim is so far rather limited—deserves to be heard more widely.

Robert Markow
Fanfare, July 2010

Like Hindemith, Korngold, and a number of others, Kurt Roger (1895–1966) was born in Europe, emigrated to the U.S. around the time of World War II, and returned to his homeland toward the end of his life…Sonia Stevenson’s excellent notes inform us that his teachers included Guido Adler, Karl Weigl, and Arnold Schoenberg. He taught at the Vienna Conservatory from 1923 to 1938 and became an American citizen in 1945. His music has been played by the Chicago Symphony, the Rochester Philharmonic, the National Symphony, and several major orchestras in England and Austria.

This Naxos program presents four substantial works requiring from one to five musicians. Perhaps the most enduring quality of his music is the amazingly wide variety of styles Roger uses. First off is the Clarinet Quintet, Roger’s last composition (1966). The work opens with a jaunty, dance-like subject but soon dense polyphony and a relentlessly energetic pace take over, qualities that might easily alienate some listeners and prevent them from hearing anything more on the disc. This would be a sad mistake. The Clarinet Quintet has its moments. In particular there are many passages of that hyper-romantic yearning and intense lyricism that characterize late Mahler and early Schoenberg. Unfortunately, the music lacks a clear sense of direction; too often there is much hectic scurrying for all five parts leading nowhere.

The remaining works are far more enjoyable. Easiest on the ears is the Piano Trio of 1953, packed with simple, foot-tapping tunes, but my personal favorite is the Piano Sonata (1953), a tough, no-nonsense work in the manner of the Barber, Griffes, and Ginastera sonatas. The opening movement, despite its title of “Toccata,” is richly laced with lyricism while the finale, titled “Phantasmagoria,” is also written in the style of a toccata, a taut, powerfully driven movement that thunders to a thrilling conclusion. Pianists looking for an alternative to the Prokofiev Seventh or the Barber Sonata for their recitals can do no better than investigate this fine work. The Variations on an Irish Air for flute, cello, and piano (1948) consist of 12 variations on Down by the Salley Gardens, a well-crafted, tightly argued and focused work that explores the air with means both direct and sophisticated.

All four works are rendered with an obvious sense of commitment and receive the highest standards of performance. Pianist Benjamin Frith calls for special mention for his gripping interpretation of the sonata. A clear, clean, unfussy acoustic environment adds a further feather in the cap for Kurt Roger. By all means give this a try if you need something new in your life; just listen to the Clarinet Quintet last.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, December 2009

Though born into the musical turmoil created by the Second Viennese School, Kurt Roger never embraced their atonal world, though he had spent time in Schoenberg’s composition class. He was enjoying considerable success when he and his Irish-born wife made a hasty exit as Nazi tentacles came ever closer to his native Vienna. Briefly stopping off in London, they eventually found sanctuary in the United States and eventual took citizenship there. His music received an enthusiastic reception in performances by the nation’s major orchestras, and he was offered quality work teaching in universities. With the war at an end, he made many visits to Europe, and, by a twist of fate, was enjoying a temporary teaching post in his wife’s homeland when he died in 1966 at the age of 71. Though individual in style, his modest output looked back for its inspiration to the late Romantic era. Written in the year before his death, the Clarinet Quintet was to be his last work and contains a feel of nostalgia in the slow movement before a sense of superimposed happiness appears in an animated finale. The Piano Sonata comes from his New York period in 1943, the central movement having traces of Debussy, the piquant harmonies the only sign of its mid 20th century origin. It is here played with the infinite care for detail that has been the hallmark of Benjamin Frith’s previous Naxos discs, the pianist then joining his Gould colleagues for the Piano Trio, it’s three short movements echoing the great Viennese masters of past times. Using the Irish air Down by the Sally Gardens, the Variations of 1948 is pleasing but a little academic in form. He could certainly not have wished for more compelling performances, and you will find Roger a much undervalued composer and a worthy discovery.

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