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George ROCHBERG (1918-2005)
Symphony No. 1 (1948-49, rev. 1977, 2002-03) [64:15]
Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Lyndon-Gee
rec. Grosses Sendesaal, Funkhaus Halberg, Saarbrücken, Germany, 6-9 January 2004. DDD
Booklet notes in English
World Première Recording
NAXOS 8.559214 [64:15]

George Rochberg is not a familiar name to many people nevertheless he was a composer of great power and imagination. His works are often large in scale and ambition. He had wonderful control over orchestral colours and textures and always presented a cohesive musical argument. Rochberg was born in Paterson, New Jersey of Jewish Ukrainian parents on 5 July 1918. Like his close contemporary (and fellow impressive symphonist), William Schuman, Rochberg played jazz piano in New York clubs as a student. He studied at the Mannes School of Music where his studies brought him into contact with, among others, George Szell, later studying at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He was seriously wounded at the Battle of the Bulge during the Second World War and he remained with a slight limp for the rest of his life. He was director of publications for Theodore Presser from 1951 and in 1960 became chairman of the music department at the University of Pennsylvania and then Annenberg Professor of Humanities from 1979 until retirement in 1983.

Rochberg’s musical style falls into three distinct periods. Before his meeting with Luigi Dallapiccola in 1951, Rochberg’s music was chromatic, almost atonal, although still recognisably from tonal roots. Between the early 1950s and 1963, he was the darling of the American avant-garde and wrote exclusively serial music, the most important work from this period being the Second Symphony of 1955-56, premiered by Rochberg’s former professor George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in 1961. The Naxos American Classics recording of this work has been reviewed several times previously for Musicweb, as has the Fifth Symphony by Neil Horner [review]. Following the death of his son in 1964, Rochberg abandoned the twelve-tone system in search of a music language which would allow him the increased degree of expression he sought. Possibly his most notable work from this third period is the Third String Quartet from 1972, which also bore the Transcendental Variations, an arrangement for string orchestra of the Quartet’s slow movement.

"This is the craziest music I have ever seen" is reportedly how Rochberg’s teacher Leopold Mannes, reacted to being shown the piano score of the Capriccio of Rochberg’s First Symphony. The Symphony is a monster, it has to be said, being a five-movement work of well over an hour’s duration. At the most superficial level, the First Symphony resembles the model of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony – two substantial symphonic movements at beginning and end, a furious scherzo in the centre and two ‘night music’ pieces as second and fourth movements. This superficial level is where the similarity ends, however. This symphony is a vastly ambitious creation for a young 30-year-old composer to attempt and I was constantly struck by the confidence and assurance shown in the composition of this powerful yet slightly rambling work. Originally written during 1948-49, Rochberg revised the First Symphony in 1977 and then again in 2002-03 in preparation for this recording.

The first movement (along with a great deal of the rest of the Symphony) shows the strong influence of the music by Stravinsky Rochberg doubtless heard in New York such as the Symphony in C and Symphony in 3 Movements, as well as (to my ears) early Schoenberg and hints of Berg, Martinů, Varčse, Copland and early Bernstein – whose own First Symphony had appeared in 1942. The work opens without any preamble whatsoever and brings to mind the aforementioned Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements. There seems to be almost a straight quote from the Stravinsky work at around 3:03 and again later at 9:04. Rochberg’s confidence in his skills is shown not only in the complex, dissonant, contrapuntal music that pervades much of the movement but also in the bravery of ending the ‘exposition’ section with a blatant, richly scored C major chord. The movement is taughtly argued throughout its eleven minutes and makes an impressive start, living up to the marking Exultant!! in the score. Wherever next?

What we have in the second movement is a true Night Music. This is not, however, a night music like Mahler or Bartók. This was the first part of the Symphony to be written, standing alone for some months, and is very much Rochberg’s own distinctive sound world. The heart of this movement could quite easily be the slow movement of a cello concerto. This is a lament of extreme tranquility and one feels that Rochberg’s dedication for the Symphony "To my mother, in memoriam" is at its most deeply felt here. This extensive ruminatory music is framed by sections more agitated in nature.

The Capriccio third movement is a Stravinskian/Varèsian/Coplandesque scherzo of massive proportions. The percussion comes very much into prominence here and the music has a relentless forward drive that leaves the listener breathless after nearly fourteen minutes. The huge Variations fourth movement sounds oddly ‘English’ in many places, Rochberg’s symphonic contrapuntal skills echoing those of Edmund Rubbra. The movement leads straight into the Finale - the First Symphony’s only movement lasting under ten minutes. After a brief slow introduction which continues the hazy music which concluded the Variations, we are thrust into what Rochberg himself described as "peg-leg Pete" music, with its lolloping gait and constant changes of direction.

The performance of the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra is exemplary in every way and Christopher Lyndon-Gee obviously has the full measure of this gargantuan work. His credentials have already been fully shown in the previous Rochberg releases which have won such critical acclaim. The recording is first rate to match, having the perfect combination of warm, natural sound and enough detail in the recording to hear Rochberg’s sometimes complex contrapuntal textures.

This Symphony has been a major discovery for me and repeated listenings have been intensely rewarding. Rochberg is undoubtedly one of the most important American symphonists. I think only William Schuman could realistically vie with Rochberg for the mantle of ‘the’ most important American symphonist. This giant of a symphony has not had an easy life and I hope Christopher Lyndon-Gee’s world première recording will bring to it the larger audience it so richly deserves.

Derek Warby


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