Kurt ROGER (1895-1966)
Quintet for Clarinet, Two Violins, Viola and Cello, Op.116 (1966) [21:22]a
Piano Sonata, Op.43 (1943) [18:22]b
Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano, Op.77 [1953) [12:46]c
Variations on an Irish Air, for Flute, Cello and Piano, Op.58 (1948) [22:57]d
a Robert Plane (clarinet), Mia Cooper, Lucy Gould (violin), David Adams (viola), Alice Neary (cello)
b Benjamin Frith (piano)
c Gould Piano Trio: Lucy Gould (violin), Alice Neary (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano)
d Emily Beynon (flute), Alice Neary (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano).
rec. 9-10 March,12-24 May and 1 June 2009, Champs Hill, Pulborough, West Sussex.
NAXOS 8.572238 [75:28]

Although I have listened a good few times to the music on this disc, I am not sure I have made much progress in the attempt to discover a distinctive musical personality, or a sense of coherent development, in the work of a composer to whose work I had previously paid little attention. But I have – by and large – enjoyed what I have heard and would readily extend the experiment by hearing more of his music.

Roger is an eclectic and a musician who is obviously steeped in the music of the past and - to some extent - the present. The eclecticism, the movement from one musical idiom to another between and within works, may reflect something of Roger’s temperament; perhaps it was a conscious aesthetic choice; or perhaps it reflects something of the disrupted nature of his musical life. For Roger was one of those many Central European musicians whose life and perhaps his sensibilities were profoundly affected by the Second World War. Born in Vienna, Roger studied music in that city with the musicologist Guido Adler, and with the composer Karl Weigl as well as with Schoenberg - two more who were obliged by the rise of Hitler to leave Austria. Between 1923 and 1938 he taught at the Vienna Conservatory, and his own compositions were frequently performed. But in 1938, in the face of the Anschluss, all of that was destroyed, and he made his way to America via London and Ireland, where he met his Irish wife-to-be. He became an American citizen in 1945, and taught at a number of American institutions. In later years he made a number of visits to Austria, teaching in Vienna, Salzburg and elsewhere. It was while on a visit to Austria that he died in August 1966.

All the music heard on this disc was written after Roger’s initial departure from Austria. The earliest work is the Piano Sonata, made up of three movements headed Toccata-Interlude-Phantasmagoria. The whole is attractive - the Interlude is particularly intriguing, in the use it makes of rocking chords in conversation with some dark figures in the bass - and would surely appeal to those who like, say, Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata, written later in the same decade. Variations on an Irish Air is very astutely and delicately scored - of Roger’s high competence there is never any doubt. It contains some passages of real beauty as in the opening for unaccompanied flute. The air in question is ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ and though this may not be the most ambitious of Roger’s works, its range of mood and manner makes it constantly engaging. There is little that would make one think of Vienna in this excellent set of twelve variations. Vienna, on the other hand, is a clear presence in the two works not yet discussed – the Piano Trio and the Clarinet Quintet. But two different eras of Viennese music are evoked though it seems to be in Roger’s nature as a composer that neither work is entirely dominated by its obvious influences. In the Piano Trio Roger certainly remembers, and skilfully deploys, the classical forms of the Viennese greats. At times the use of counterpoint can seem a little dry, but there are also some lyrical melodies and an almost Haydnesque rusticity in the third movement. In the Clarinet Quintet, Roger’s last completed composition, classical clarity is replaced by a late-romantic manner that owes something to both Mahler and Schoenberg … and perhaps to the instruction of Weigl back in the composer’s youth. This is full of dense textures, textures which express a mood both melancholy and nostalgic, the lower end of the clarinet’s range being particularly well used in music which highlights no one of the five instruments with any consistency – this is no mini-concerto for clarinet – and which is built in complex and intricate fashion. The result isn’t always easy listening but it has a real power.

So far as I can judge - not being familiar with the music other than in these recordings - these are uniformly good performances; as, indeed, one would expect from these performers. The Gould Piano Trio are, by now, Naxos regulars and will be familiar to British followers of chamber music, heard live and/or on disc. Emily Beynon – who I first heard when she was a schoolgirl in South Wales, when she showed every sign of becoming the major instrumentalist she now is – makes an impressive contribution to the Variations, joining two members of the Gould Trio. Not, incidentally, that the Welsh connections finish there - I write as a Yorkshireman long resident in Wales; Robert Plane is Principal Clarinet of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and David Adams - who joins him as viola player in the Quintet - is, since he is also a fine violinist, Leader of the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera. Both Plane and Adams have joined the Gould Trio on previous Naxos recordings and there is, indeed, a sense of comfortable mutuality to the playing here – part of what enables all concerned to make an interesting case for a composer who, I suspect - my evidence for such a claim is so far rather limited - deserves to be heard more widely.

Glyn Pursglove

Intriguing, if unfamiliar, music well-played and recorded.

see also review by Carla Rees