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George ROCHBERG (1918-2005)
Symphony no. 1 (1948-49, rev. 1977 and 2003)
Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Lyndon-Gee
rec. Großes Sendesaal, Funkhaus Halberg, Saarbrücken, Germany, 6-9 January 2004.
NAXOS 8.559214 [64:15]
Experience Classicsonline

By now it's an old-story: a young lion of the serialist, atonal avant-garde becomes a tuneful symphonist ... or a minimalist. This is the story told of American composer George Rochberg, whose collected orchestral works Naxos is endeavoring to record with the help of Christopher Lyndon-Gee. It is, like so much of what's happening on Naxos' "American Classics" series, to be met with shouts of joy.
Rochberg's First Symphony was written in the late 1940s, while the composer himself was just turning 30. Yet the score was revised "top to bottom" in 1977, and again in 2002-03 in preparation for this recording; the composer died in 2005. Rochberg, like Bruckner before him, fell victim to others' attempts to make his music more manageable and accessible. Eugene Ormandy convinced him to submit to the editor's ax. When he was finally willing to cut no more, Ormandy retorted, "Far be it from me, a mere conductor, to tell a composer how he should write his music." It must have been gratifying to Rochberg to participate in the present rehabilitation of the original score.
So, the symphony began its life before the composer adopted serial methodology, and then through subsequent revision assumed a form far more reflective of his artistic maturity. His post-serial mission, in Richard Taruskin's charged words, was "to challenge the whole idea of stylistic obsolescence. And to challenge that idea was to put in question the ‘necessity’ of the twentieth century’s stylistic revolutions — the most sacred of all modernist dogmas."
Rochberg himself could describe his purpose even more grandiloquently and obtusely. "Subjective man views existence as change; himself and his history at the center of a process of becoming. Subjective man cannot transcend time; he is trapped in it. However, when man seizes on the present moment of existence as the only 'real' time, he spatializes his existence; that is, he fills his present with objects that take on a state of permanence." If we are to take this as Rochberg's compositional philosophy, then what process of becoming do we find "spatialized," made permanent, in the First Symphony?
Structurally, this symphony shows similarities to Mahler's Seventh: both have five movements constructed in an arch. Rochberg even has a second movement "Night Music," though where Mahler would insert a funeral march, we get instead the lurching graveyard revels of dancing ghosts and skeletons, with an undead fiddler for good measure. This after an opening movement (marked "Exultant !!") of Nielsen-like exuberance. The third movement Capriccio ("fast and impetuous; like a curtain-raiser") with percussion outbursts and obbligato piano (and that's just in the first minute) caused his own teacher to exclaim "This is the craziest music I have ever seen!" Stitching together the craziness, however, is sweet, yearning writing for strings and winds. The fourth movement Variations continue elegiac writing for strings and brass in a "very slow and stately" mode. The finale brings pealing brass heralding war fury and, after uncertainty – perhaps - victory.
Sure, it sounds like a lot. But it all hangs together, which is more than half the wonder. Whether the whole adds up to an extra-music programmatic narrative, however, is a verdict I'll leave to the reader-listener.
Lyndon-Gee's involvement in the recording of Rochberg's works extends beyond conducting to writing the notes as well. In these notes he demonstrates his deep knowledge and passion for the music, even if he shares the composer's tendency to start talking about music and end up talking metaphysics.
As far as the playing is concerned, this is no mere read-through. The musicians from Saarbrücken play with commitment and intensity, with polished and integrated tone, and with the precision of articulation that can elude better-known orchestras. Lyndon-Gee, for his part, is a natural at organically shaping phrases and building climaxes.
Fans of the twentieth-century symphony should consider this essential.
Brian Burtt

see also review by Derek Warby

Reviews of Rochberg's Violin Concerto, Symphony 2 and Symphony 5


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