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Arnold ROSNER (1945-2013)
The Chronicle of Nine: The Tragedy of Queen Jane, Op.81 (1984) [131:05]
Lady Jane Grey - Megan Pachecano (soprano)
Earl of Arundel - James Demler (baritone)
Earl of Pembroke - David Salsbery Fry (bass)
John Dudley - Aaron Engebreth (baritone)
Lady Dudley - Krista River (mezzo)
Guildford Dudley - Eric Carey (tenor)
Henry Grey - William Hite (tenor)
Frances Grey - Rebecca Krouner (contralto)
Lady Mary - Stephanie Kacoyanis (contralto)
A minstrel - Gene Stenger (tenor)
Boston Modern Opera Project Odyssey Opera/Gil Rose
rec. 3 and 4 February 2020, Mechanics Hall, Worcester, MA
World premiere recording
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
BMOP/SOUND 1081 [131:05]

If I had been told that this opera was written in 1934 or even 1954, I would be hailing it as a neglected gem, so does it matter that it was completed in 1984? The longer I have spent with it the more my affection has grown, and affection is the right word. In its own goofy way, this is an immensely loveable work. So the answer to my opening question is an emphatic No.

This is a world premiere recording from 2020, though it is not that hard to see why such a piece fell between the cracks in musical fashion. Rosner was born in New York but his adherence to more traditional approaches to composition left him as a perpetual outsider to the musical establishment. He wrote a lot of music in a whole variety of genres, including eight symphonies and numerous concertos as well as a considerable amount of chamber music, but most of his work went unperformed during his lifetime. His style was dominated by an interest in modal music and the music of the Renaissance together with a love of Vaughan Williams and Hovhaness, about whose music he wrote his doctoral thesis.

There is nothing remotely progressive about this music, and I suppose it has had to wait for an era that cares less about those things than in the recent past. A parallel, though more explicable oddity might be the revival of Alwyn’s Miss Julie. Like that fine work, the question ought to be: is it any good as music? The answer, as far as Rosner is concerned, is yes, indeed it is. If it sounds rather like music from the golden age of Hollywood, then it also has to be said that it sounds like good music from the golden age of Hollywood.

The opening prelude sets the tone. It is an outrageous lift from the Vaughan Williams of the Tallis Fantasia era but it is also a rather gorgeous lift. If you are going to steal, steal like this! Elsewhere, Rosner feels no need whatsoever to give his evident love of Renaissance dance tunes any kind of modern twist or bow to any kind of historically informed practice. I recently put on Szell’s LSO recording of the Hamilton Harty arrangements of the Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks for the first time in ages and loved every second of it. That’s the sort of sensation I get from listening to this opera – old fashioned but in a rather fun way. It would a cold heart indeed that wouldn’t warm to his distinctly 19th century version of Renaissance-style brass writing, for instance.

What saves Rosner from pastiche is the sincerity of his writing. He really means every note. There is nothing arch or clever about it, like Stravinsky’s work on Pulcinella. He isn’t trying to reinvent the tradition so much as continue it as if modernism had never happened.

Despite contemplating alerting advertising standards to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project over this set, they clearly had a knees up playing it. Their fine playing is beautifully recorded, too, and every word of the fine cast (American accents and all) is clearly audible. The libretto is included but I didn’t need to refer to it, so easy was it to follow the words. Rosner wrote engaging vocal lines for his singers and his orchestrations are unashamedly lush.

It is also a work that in its last act delivers an emotional dramatic punch, particularly in the last two scenes. The confrontation between Jane and Queen Mary is powerful stuff, but also fascinatingly scored for the cello section alone to imitate, as the copious notes inform me, a viol consort. The effect is anything but ersatz. Rosner speaks with his own distinctive voice and playing and singing rise suitably to the occasion.

The execution scene with which the opera closes is a very effective set piece with its jolly street vendors underpinned by darker music. It is marvellously macabre. The moment of execution sees Rosner marshalling his material to deliver a genuine sense of heartbreak without overplaying his hand. When the music from the prelude to Act 1 returns right at the end, it is only a fleeting reference where I was dreading a full-scale recapitulation. Indeed, throughout the opera, Rosner’s concision is to be commended. It is just the right touch at the right moment to elevate an already impressive scene into, dare I say it, the magical.

Fans of Vaughan Williams and Holst will find lots too enjoy in this lovely piece but I am sure many others, like me, will be surprised at how seductive it is. Certainly we owe the BMOP and Odyssey Opera our thanks for giving us the chance to hear this odd delight.

David McDade

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