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George ROCHBERG (1918-2005)
Symphony No.2 (1956) [31:28]
Imago Mundi (1973) [24:06]
Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Lyndon-Gee
Recorded in the Grosse Sendesaal, Funkhaus Halberg, Saarbrucken, Germany on 19th – 20th December 2000 (Symphony) and 30th January 2001 (Imago Mundi) – World Premiere. DDD
NAXOS 8.559182 [55:34]
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Reading the comprehensive notes for this release, a co-production between Naxos and Saarlandischer Rundfunk, I was lead to expect a real ear-opener. Surely this would be a superb modern American symphony, good enough to withstand comparison with the greatest of American symphonies - many of them available on the Company’s enterprising American Music Series.

I then played the disc and was bitterly disappointed. Instead of melodies, structure and a modicum of development of thematic material, there was only unmitigated gloom, despondency and downright violence. I know this work was written when the composer was influenced by WW2 but for heaven’s sake!

I then went back to the notes and realised that they were written by the conductor – need I say more. Perhaps, since I was completely out of sympathy with the music, I may be excused from not giving it the warm welcome that its participants may have been wanting. It is described as the first American twelve-tone symphony; based upon the aural evidence it seems to me to be far more twelve-tone than symphony.

I must say however that great care has been lavished upon this production with the excellent playing of the orchestra being caught superbly by the engineers, and processed into this handsomely produced CD.

I must accept that the symphony won prizes when it was first performed. However describing the composer as the most pre-eminent of all American symphonic composers is exaggeration. Wouldn’t such sterling composers as William Schuman, Walter Piston and Aaron Copland come out ahead in any such ratings competition. I think so. I realise that I am sounding negative about Rochberg’s work, but this is partly a reaction to the over-the-top claims made in the documentation and in part springs from hearing the music itself. I have subsequently listened to the Fifth Symphony by this composer, also on Naxos, with the same artists. I found this to have all the elements present so clearly missing from the Second. It appears that my negativity is due to the works themselves, rather than the composer.

Imago Mundi is the second work on the disc, and was said to be inspired by Japanese Gagaku music. Four symphonic works were written by the composer in this style, after a three week visit to Japan in 1973. Imago Mundi (‘Image of the World’) is the fourth in the series. All I can say is that I am grateful to Naxos for restricting the fill-up to one of these pieces. If they had all been much the same, and had been included - there is still 25 minutes of space on the disc - I would be now heading for the hills.

John Phillips

see also review by Rob Barnett



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