Rochberg Symphony No 5

Intensely wrought music with its roots in Mahler and Varèse, played with dedication

Author: 
Andrew Farach-Colton

Rochberg Symphony No 5

  • Black Sounds
  • Trascendental Variations
  • Symphony No 5

This is the second Naxos CD devoted to the music of George Rochberg to appear in less than a year, and the second to include Black Sounds (1965). It’s a powerful score and one representative of its composer. Indeed, it is a pared-down version of a work for a larger ensemble of winds and percussion, entitled Apocalyptica (1964), written in homage to Edgard Varèse, and Rochberg does an impressive job of creating an echt-Varèsian soundworld without blatant plagiarism. Christopher Lyndon-Gee pushes forcefully through the piece, clocking in at 14 minutes as compared with Gil Rose’s 17. But speedier tempi do not necessarily generate intensity, and the earlier release is markedly more expressive and grimly characterful.

Of course, Naxos recordings are so reasonably priced that one can hardly complain about overlaps in repertory, particularly as this new CD offers première recordings of the Symphony No 5 (1985) and Transcendental Variations (1975). I felt especially grateful to have the symphony on disc, as it’s a work I’m unlikely to hear played in the concert hall. And that is a real shame, for it is a gripping, emotionally expansive work – cast in a single movement of almost half an hour’s duration – whose gestures are defiantly traditional. Rochberg alludes here to Mahler, Wagner and Shostakovich, among others, though he somehow manages to create a unified, utterly individual style. Lyndon-Gee makes a strong case for the symphony, inciting the Saarbrücken Radio Orchestra to play with guts and grit.

Transcendental Variations is an arrangement for string orchestra of the central section of the String Quartet No 3 (1971), the now infamous work in which Rochberg introduced unabashedly tonal music into his writing. Suffice it to say that if this were revealed to be a long lost Adagio by Mahler – which is not so far-fetched as one might imagine given the craftsmanship and sheer beauty of the music – it would be taken up by quartets and orchestras the world over. The Saarbrücken violins sound a bit thin in their upper register but otherwise give a very touching and sweet-toned performance. Not to be missed.

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