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George ROCHBERG (1918-2005)
Symphony No. 2 (1955-56) [31:28]
Imago Mundi (Image of the World) for large orchestra (1973) [24:06]
Saarbrücken Radio-Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Lyndon-Gee
rec. Großes Sendesaal, Funkhaus Halberg, Saarbrücken, Germany, 19-20 Dec 2000 (Symphony); 30 Jan 2001 (Imago). DDD
NAXOS 8.559182 [55.34]


Following hot on the heels of Rochberg’s Symphony No. 5, Black Sounds and Transcendental Variations (8.559115) Naxos have released a recording of two more significant Rochberg scores as part of their ‘American Classics’ series. The same forces that were so successful in the earlier release namely the Saarbrücken orchestra under London-born Christopher Lyndon-Gee continue to be used and the recording was once again made in the same studio. 

Leading American composer George Rochberg was the son of a Ukrainian Jewish family who emigrated to the USA just prior to the outbreak of the ‘Great’ war. Rochberg forms part of that remarkable and important generation of Eastern European emigrants and their children, including; Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, George and Ira Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Irving Berlin. These people significantly contributed to propelling American music into the forefront of international artistic sophistication and significance. Sadly Rochberg died earlier this year at his Philadelphia home, aged eighty-six.

After serving as a Captain for the US forces in Europe in the Second World War, Rochberg was seriously wounded during the ‘Battle of the Bulge’, in the Ardennes Forest on the German/Belgium border in the winter of 1944-45. Later in Italy, Rochberg became friends of the anti-Fascist composer Luigi Dallapiccola, then the leader of the Italian ‘serialist’ avant-garde group. Through the influence of Dallapiccola and private study of the works of Schoenberg and Webern, he became convinced of the “inevitability” of twelve-tone composition, and began writing his first serial compositions. He later wrote of this period that he felt himself, “living at the very edge of the musical frontier, of music itself.” Upon returning to America, Rochberg published the first American study of twelve-tone music.

The Symphony No. 2 is a fully-fledged twelve-tone work; the first in fact to be composed by an American. It made Rochberg’s name at its New York première in 1961 at Carnegie Hall, with a performance given by the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. Rochberg came to describe his highly personal mode of expression in this new compositional language as, “hard romanticism.” Rochberg said of his Symphony that its formal style is, “essentially four movements linked by brief interludes into a thirty-minute uninterrupted musical whole.” The conductor here has described the work as having, “a helter-skelter, gritty, impassioned language.” Listening now to Rochberg’s Symphony No. 2 is not quite the experience fraught with unsettling difficulties that it might have been some decades ago. It is very much of its time and although not an easy listening experience the challenges seem far more manageable and the music is reasonably approachable.

The score to the Second Symphony opens with a movement called Declamando, that has a distinct military feel of field-musicians using snare drums, bugles and other brass fanfares. The contribution of the woodwinds includes piercing flute calls. Episodes of calm are infused into the score but a mood of tension and agitation predominates. The atmosphere changes to one of jollity before moving into angst and darkness.  Initially in the second movement, Allegro scherzoso it is hard to differentiate between what has gone before. The music develops into a harsher and craggier version of the opening movement. The extended third movement Adagio opens in an climate of tranquillity. Suggestions of searching and yearning prevail. Then what sound like Far-Eastern elements are evoked with a passage for solo violin and various woodwind. The relative calmness comes to an end with an unexpected forte episode for full orchestra which is not sustained; a device that Rochberg replicates. The fourth movement, Quasi tempo primo is perhaps the most interesting of the whole Symphony. The high tension tempo is maintained throughout the various sections of the orchestra in which each seems to be competing for attention. The brief final movement Coda is a moody and tense affair with an almost threatening atmosphere to bring the Symphony to its conclusion. The performers here make very convincing advocates for the virtues of this score. The performance is of the highest order with powerful and cleanly textured playing.

Following a gradual reassessment of his aesthetic, Rochberg turned his back on ‘serial music’ and ultimately returned to the composition of tonal music between the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-eighties. In 1961 the Rochbergs’ seventeen-year-old son, Paul, fell ill with a brain tumour. He died three years later, throwing his father into despair. Confronted with his son’s death, Rochberg struggled to give that tragedy some meaning through his music, but the serialism upon which his career had been built he now found empty and meaningless. It was a language that could not bear the weight of his sorrow and he abandoned it. Rochberg declared of serialism, “It was finished, hollow, meaningless.” In the next decade, he maintained his exploration to find a musical syntax suitable for that sorrow, marking his struggle in many works.

The orchestral score to Imago Mundi (Image of the World). can be better described as a ‘Ritual’ than as a ‘Symphonic Poem’ and provides a stark contrast to the earlier Second Symphony. It was commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and first performed in May 1974 under Sergiu Comissiona. A three-week visit to Japan in the early summer of 1973 left Rochberg with profound visual, aural and cultural impressions. A group of four related works were rapidly written in subsequent months, three chamber works: Ukiyo-E – Pictures of the Floating World; Slow Fires of Autumn (Ukiyo-E II); Between Two Worlds (Ukiyo-E III) and the featured work for large orchestra Imago Mundi. Christopher Lyndon-Gee explains that, “Exploration of ways of perceiving and representing the world is at the heart of this series of works.”

Rochberg explains in his memoirs, entitled ‘Five Lines and Four Spaces’, that the freer-structured score to Imago Mundi, is a picturing of the external world, but only insofar as our pictures of the world outside ourselves are imaginings, mental fictions, shadowed reflections of the ‘reality’ of past as well as of present times”. This Naxos disc provides the world première recording. In parts the score recalls what has been described as the hypnotic timelessness of Japanese Gagaku, which is a form of Japanese classical music, heard at Shinto-shrines, Japanese wedding ceremonies and court events. In the score I heard reminders of the Gagaku-inspired sound world of Cowell and Hovhaness. This exploration of  rhythm, harmony and instrumental sonorities and uses exotic woodwind and percussion. Orchestra and conductor hold the score together with distinction.

The sound quality is a credit to the Naxos engineers and the booklet notes maintain the all-round high standard. An excellent release well worth exploring.

Michael Cookson

see also Reviews by Rob Barnett and John Phillips


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