This is a generously timed and attractively presented CD. The booklet tells us that John Rose was born in London and emigrated to South Africa with his parents in 1940. Several of his compositions were performed there, before “a long creative hiatus” that lasted until he resumed composition in 1993. He has also worked in education and as a choral conductor. The booklet also provides useful information on the artists, as well as notes on the music by John Rose himself. These are short, pithy commentaries indicating, in the main, the motifs from which the music is constructed, and the interrelation between the works presented and others in his catalogue. This approach is much to be preferred to the impenetrable philosophical theses we sometimes encounter, and even more so to the trite, effusively personal confessions now becoming common, but even so, in his brevity, he does the listener few favours. In addition, he did not want the different sections of each of the string quartets banded separately, and whilst this undoubtedly preserves the integrity of each work – they are both played without a break – a CD is often used as a study tool, and would certainly be useful in this case, and presenting twenty-six minutes of closely argued music in a single flow is not the best way to initiate the listener.
The programme is made up of three piano works plus two string quartets. The earliest music on the disc is the Essay on DSCH. (There is a little confusion in the booklet notes, one of the essays suggesting that the work was composed after 1993.) There is nothing in the composer’s description to suggest that this is in any way a tribute to Shostakovich. Instead, it would appear that a motif from an earlier work struck him as similar to Shostakovich’s musical cipher, prompting the composition of this work. The piece is sonorous and gritty by turns, extremely well written for the piano in a style that will evoke Tippett in some listeners’ minds. There are moments of drama, and the piece closes with a lengthy, tranquil coda closing on a sonorous chord of A major. It is a compelling work to which one wants to return, but a certain emotional aridity will limit its attractiveness to some. This impression is confirmed in the first of the two sets of Preludes and Fugues for piano that share an opus number. Here, in spite of its clear and dramatic structure, the fugue does not quite succeed in leaving the world of the academia. The prelude, on the other hand, is based – as is the fugue – on a theme that stubbornly refuses to leave the mind once you’ve heard it, and it’s not every composer who achieves that! The second prelude is dark and heavy, with thick textures, the whole very serious and not a little oppressive. In this case the composer’s note allows the listener to follow the musical argument even at a first hearing. Once again I am put in mind of early and middle-period Tippett here, especially the fugal writing in some of that composer’s string quartets. The music is discursive and convincing, appealing perhaps more to the head than the heart. As for the performances, Robert Melling plays all three works with what appears to be total mastery and conviction. The composer will surely have been deeply satisfied and appreciative.
From its arresting opening to the lively, conclusive finish, the Quartet No. 1 confirms the impression of a composer of great seriousness, uninterested in surface glamour and who expects his listeners to work at the music. Robert Simpson was another in this vein, and I would add his name to the list of composers Rose’s music can evoke, as well as, for different reasons, those of Bartók, Tippett again, and even Hindemith, names I cite merely in the hope of giving some impression of what this fascinating music sounds like. The Quartet never sounds as though it were conceived for any other medium, but there are times, as indeed there are in the piano works, when one would welcome a little more variety of colour, and there is a stratospheric passage just before the halfway mark that, striking though it is, rather tires the ear. There is, if anything, even less contrast of texture and colour in the Second Quartet, and for once I feel the work contains a passage or two where the composer stretches his motifs further than they can really bear. But once again one is struck by the seriousness of intent here, consummate craftsmanship, and a result that leaves the listener eager to return and explore the work further. Both works receive fine performances from the Edinburgh Quartet, though listening without a score I suspect that there are one or two passages in the Second Quartet where the group is particularly stretched. These are also those passages where I feel the composer’s inspiration is flagging, in which case the two impressions may well be linked.
This is a fine disc of uncompromising music from a little known composer. I recommend it to all those who like to stray from the beaten track.
Not easy music at a first hearing, but compelling and satisfying.
And a further view … from Rob Barnett:-
Rose was born in London of Dutch parents. He was a student of Rubbra whose own richly woven textures have, I am sure, encouraged Rose's approach. He emigrated to Cape Town in 1940 where his music was performed. After a long pause he began composing again after a return to the UK in 1993. Two major organ works have been recorded by Kevin Bowyer. Unrecorded as yet are Psalm XLI for chorus and orchestra and Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui for chorus, organ and timpani. There have been songs - which I have not heard - mostly settings of Chinese poetry. He is in good company: Lambert and Bliss.
The Edinburgh Quartet have already distinguished themselves with fine and enterprising CDs of the quartets of Leighton, Seiber and Crawford.
The music here largely dates from the period 1997-2001.
The First Quartet makes for a most resinous and soulful introduction. Like its 1999 successor it is in a single movement - certainly both are tracked as single spans of music - presumably just as the composer intended.
The First is tonal and affluently dense in texture. Ideas are often carried by the first violin. The music gives the impression of being in crowded flight and expressive of a complex of razor-keen emotions. Very touching ideas fly in, mesmerise and move on - as at 6.34. More surreal and even mildly acidic music occurs at 15.00 onwards. There’s a passage of fugal character at 16.01 which manages to shake off academicism just as the stultifying cloak was about fall around its shoulders. This is a generously tense, unrelenting and emotionally exhausting piece with some lyrical release. However, more dynamic variety would have aided the experience. Potent stuff.
Three piano pieces separate the two quartets. The 2001 Prelude and Fugue op. 20a is of bell-clear crystalline clarity and grandeur. The op. 20b work wears a similarly grave visage and resounds with commanding music of the bell-tower. The early work is the Essay on DSCH - another Shostakovich tribute. It's in the nature of a Lisztian fantasy in the grand manner. I wonder whether Ronald Stevenson heard it at any point. Perhaps Stevenson's time in Cape Town overlapped with that of John Rose. All three pieces are splendidly delivered by Robert Melling.
Second Quartet runs to 26 minutes. Its material draws on music from Rose’s own Psalm XLI which was performed during the time this quartet was being written and from Rose's Spem in Alium. The notes tell us that the Mus es sein? Es mus sein motifs from Beethoven's op. 135 quartet also play their part. Again the brooding gravity of much of this music can be cut with a knife. A largely unwavering intensity is immanent. Even joy flows with pressure driving it forwards as in 6:23 onwards. A dancing delicacy can be heard at 10.30. The Edinburgh do well to sustain the close-to-breaking-strain tension extended over such a long span. The long emotional gradient into silence of the last five minutes of this quartet is etched into the listener's memory. The finale tremble into silence is telling indeed.
I appreciated Warren Kimble's rather expressionistic Flower Quartet panels that ornament the front cover and each section of the liner-notes.
John Rose must be pleased. By the way this John Rose should not be confused with that other intriguing Rose: John Luke Rose whose Piano Concerto and Symphony ‘The Mystic’ were taken up and then dropped by the BBC in early 1980s.
The composer is not going to let us into anything about the biographical context for these works – a pity. His succinct programme notes are technically descriptive - so be it. Music should stand or collapse on its heard characteristics. I am still intrigued but I will have to remain that way.
These two quartets aspire to grandeur and have about them the forbidding trappings of grandeur. Time will tell but for now all I can say is that I am drawn back to hear them again. In any event this is music of patent sincerity and some fascination.
Music of patent sincerity and some fascination.