George ROCHBERG (1918-2005)
Piano Music - Vol. 3
Partita-Variations (1976) [35:00]
Nach Bach (1966) [8:45]
Sonata-Fantasia (1956) [23:42]
Sally Pinkas (piano)
rec. December 1996, June 1997, Spaulding Auditorium, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA. Previously released as Gasparo GSCD-340/2

George Rochberg is hardly a household name – on the UK side of the Atlantic, at least – so it’s good that Naxos has decided to rebrand and reissue this Gasparo disc of his piano music. As for Rochberg’s orchestral works, Derek Warby admired the First Symphonyreview – while in her liner-notes Sally Pinkas is just as enthusiastic about his piano pieces. How does this music strike the innocent ear? Given Rochberg’s early reputation as an avant-garde composer and the hint of formal rigour contained in the titles of these works, one might be tempted to file this music under D for difficult. Don’t, because after hearing it you’ll want to amend that to D for deeply satisfying.

The Israeli-born soloist Sally Pinkas has already contributed to other volumes in the Rochberg series, and on the strength of this one alone it’s clear she has a real affinity for this composer. Just sample the irrepressible – somewhat Lisztian – first movement of the Partita-Variations. Her playing is clean and uncluttered by undue emphasis or expressive moulding. The knotty Intermezzo with its repeated motif is subtly shaded. The open, natural recording helps immeasurably here, highlighting the crystalline qualities of Rochberg’s writing. But there’s humour in this music too, notably in Burlesca, which has the good sense to stay just this side of slapstick.

All very different from the more austere Cortege, with its sustained bass and spiky treble. Even those who usually shy away from such gnarled sounds can’t fail to be impressed both by the lucidity of Rochberg’s score and the focused, unfussy pianism. Just listen to the gentle rhythmic inflexions of Impromptu, the finely-controlled dynamics of The Deepest Carillon and the sheer elegance and fluidity of Tema: Ballade – what a remarkable blend of finesse and feeling. As for the Caprice Minuet and Canon, they are all beautifully crafted and well executed. The unfatiguing piano sound is a real boon in the music’s exposed passages. The Nocturne, Arabesque and Fuga a tre voce are no less beguiling; the nervy night music and staccatoed Arabesque especially so. As for the baroquerie of the final fugue – with its return to the cascades of the opening prelude – it’s a perfect summation of all that’s gone before.

Rochberg’s enduring fascination for Bach surfaces in the witty assonance of Nach Bach, written ten years earlier. It’s more tersely phrased than anything we’ve heard thus far, combining stylistic elements of the 17th and 20th centuries in a most artful and convincing way. Although intended for harpsichord or piano, I imagine the former would impart a much drier, more didactic flavour to this music, which clearly benefits from the colour and dynamic possibilities of the more versatile modern instrument. It’s an attractive piece, although not quite as fresh and open-faced as the Partita-Variations. Pinkas really revels in this music, and her attention to its many nuances and contrasts is admirable.

‘Dark and deeply anguished’ is how Pinkas describes the Sonata-Fantasia, written in 1956. It’s a tough, sinewy piece, rescued from relentlessness by Rochberg’s penchant for subtle textures and carefully shaded dynamics. The result is a display piece, a veritable peacock’s tail of eye-catching colours. That’s not to say Pinkas isn’t right about the music’s emotional subtext; it’s just that any such content is so tightly bound up with the musical structure that it’s hard to see where one begins and the other ends. Not the most grateful or engaging work on this disc, then, but certainly the most rigorous and intricately wrought.

Derek Warby declared Rochberg’s First Symphony a ‘major discovery’, a sentiment I’d happily echo where this piano collection is concerned. Given such strong, incisive, playing and more than enough variety and invention, an hour of this music is very easily managed in one sitting. Indeed, it’s a good piece of programming, combining the embraceable Partita-Variations with two works that, although somewhat aloof, are never unreachable. The recording – not always a Naxos strong point – is also excellent, but then I expect the credit for that lies with the original Gasparo engineers. If the other instalments are as good as this one, then I’d say they are a very welcome addition to the admirable and consistently rewarding Naxos series of American Classics.

Dan Morgan

Deeply satisfying.

The Variations
I. Praeludium [2:47]
II. Intermezzo [2:20]
III. Burlesca [00:59]
IV. Cortege [4:02]
V. Impromptu [1:53]
VI. The Deepest Carillon [4:21]
VII. Tema: Ballade [2:17]
VIII. Capriccio [1:04]
IX. Minuetto [2:46]
X. Canon [1:39]
XI. Nocturne [4:48]
XII. Arabesque [2:17]
XIII. Fuga a tre voce [3:46]