ROCHBERG: Symphony 1. Saarbrücken Radio Symphony/Christopher Lyndon-Gee. Naxos 8.559214. 64 minutes.
George Rochberg remains a much-read and widely-discussed figure in 20th century music. His stylistic journeys (into and out of serialism, through quotation/collage postmodernism, and finally to his own brand of extended tonality) and the voluminous prose that accompanied these changes may be better known than the music itself. If there has been a big increase in performances of Rochberg’s music since his passing in 2005, I am not aware of it.
I’ve always had a lukewarm (at best) reaction to Rochberg’s music, in which I’ve not been able to discern a distinctive musical personality. I’m well aware of the possibility that I’ve experienced the music this way because of my deep disagreement with many of his ideas about music.
It was an extremely pleasant surprise, then, to hear this recording of the composer’s First Symphony (1948-49, rev. 1977 and 2003). It is a fully-realized work that sums up the mid-century American symphonic style and is one of the style’s greatest achievements.
The first movement grabs your attention from the beginning and doesn’t let go. It is built from clearly-etched gestures more than from themes, and these gestures are memorable for their rhythmic drive and muscular profiles. They seem made from post-war American confidence and recall the incisiveness of Stravinsky’s nearly contemporaneous Symphony in Three Movements.
The second movement (“Night Music: Poco adagio; like a slow March”) is a dark, restlessly supple slow movement marked by passages of greater rhythmic activity. In this movement, as in all the others, several instruments are highlighted””a nervously skittering violin solo returns to haunt the proceedings.
The central Capriccioso is a raucous and colorfully lively movement that earns its name””the music is in a constant state of flux. The changes in character come so rapidly, so capriciously that they may seem random and unmotivated. But the movement holds together as a strong musical statement.
Following a now lyrical, now dramatic slow Variations movement, the Symphony closes with a powerfully brash and forceful Finale. As in the earlier movements, the various sections of the orchestra are given their chance to shine. The Symphony’s conclusion is abrupt, expressive, and completely convincing.
The Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the able direction of Christopher Lyndon-Gee (who also wrote the informative liner notes), is up to the task of delivering this sprawling and difficult work. Naxos gives their performance plenty of sonic room and it and the piece are very well served. This work shoots to the upper regions of pieces I would like to hear in performance, and it gives me incentive to revisit Rochberg’s other music, to see if there’s something I missed before.