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CLASSICAL  June 2005

CLASSICAL June 2005

Subject:

Re: George Rochberg Dead at 86

From:

James Tobin <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 28 Jun 2005 17:08:46 -0500

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Bernard Chasan

>It took me a long time to appreciate Rochberg - he seemed to be merely
>revisiting the past.  The Naxos recordings of the Violin Concerto and
>the Fifth Symphony gave the lie to that.

Last year I reviewed the second-mentioned of these Naxos recordings
(http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/n/nxs59115b.html).
Peter Grahame Woolf reviewed the Violin Concerto on Classical.net
(http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/n/nxs59129a.html); I missed
that at the time (it was not posted to the list) and I am sorry to say
I was oblivious to the importance and merits of that release, until now.

When it first was performed, Rochberg's Violin Concerto made a huge
splash, even in the mainstream media, which at that time paid more
attention to classical music, because it reinforced the news that a
leading avant-gardist had returned to tonality.  Isaac Stern performed
it 47 times between 1975 and 1977.  I heard one of those performances,
at Tanglewood in 1976.  (Let me correct my earlier statement--in the
review I cited--that this was later, because something depends on the
date.) By the time Stern's recording appeared in 1979 Stern had persuaded
Rochberg to agree to a cut of fourteen minutes from the score.  After
three years, and on the basis of a single hearing, I never noticed the
difference.  The painstaking restoration of that cut by Christopher
Lyndon-Gee is part of the big news about this Naxos release.  The other
big news about the Naxos is that it sounds much, much better than the
Columbia vinyl recording (M35149).

Woolf mentioned that the Stern recording evidently never crossed the
Atlantic to the U.K. where he was writing.  I still have that recording
(the cover illustration shows an amazingly youthful Andre Previn and
George Rochberg, by the way--Stern doesn't look so old either) and I
just made a one-on-one comparison.  What surprises me--though this is
probably a reason I have not listened to it lately--is that the vinyl
recording sounds downright harsh, particularly the solo violin.  This
tends to make parts of the work seem to be harsh, in spite of the fact
that much of it is ravishing.  This is off-putting and disappointing.
One reason why this particularly matters is that Rochberg's concerto is
not entirely lyrical; it alternates between lyricism and sterner stuff
(pun intended, I suppose) and the balance of those moods matters.

Rochberg could be lyrical even with serial material (as in his Second
Symphony) and he continued to use serial techniques sometimes, for
expressive purposes, at times even in his later works.  My own ears don't
tell me whether he is using a tone row or simple dissonance because he
doesn't go every which way with his intervals (unlike some composers I
can't stand, frankly.) Instead, I simply hear passages that are more
bracing than others.  Indulge me if I see a parallel with a non-musical
incident that delighted me at the time and which I still savor.  Some
time ago my wife and I were the first seated in a favorite little Italian
restaurant one evening.  Shortly thereafter four people sat down at a
table nearby.  A couple minutes later there was a loud crash, as a wine
glass was knocked to the floor by one of them who had made a sweeping
arm gesture.  The owner, a lovely woman named Teresa, immediately went
over with dustpan and brush, plus a pleasant low-key comment.  The
perpetrator--one cannot say offender--explained that he was "just being
expressive!") I found the behavior of both as a lesson in life and, in
context, I cherish the memory of the crash as a wonderful punctuation
to the rest of the evening.

More on the cuts Stern made: they were mostly in the fourth and fifth
movements, which are played without pause.  Stern's recorded time for
both is listed as 18:37.  The restored version runs 18:35 in the fourth
movement alone (Intermezzo B), with the fifth (Epilogue) coming in at
an additional 10:26.  To my ears that is not a minute too long.

Jim Tobin

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