ROSNER: Sextet for Strings Nun komm' der Heiden Heiland, op. 47 (1970, rev. 1997). Besos sin cuento, op. 86 (1989). Sonata for Trombone and Piano, op. 106 (1996). 
Sestetto Agosto; Julia Bentley, voice; Pinotage; Gregory Erickson, trombone; Angelina Tallaj, piano.

ALBANY TROY 553 (F) (DDD) TT: 63:19

The poet Ezra Pound once wrote that poetry is news that stays news. I tend to think of all classic art that way. As a teen, I remember reading an account of the premiere of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra—how most of the audience was convinced that they had heard a classic. Since then, that feeling has occasionally visited me. A work I like and admire—Adams's extraordinary violin concerto or Lutoslawski's Partita, for example—won't necessarily trigger the sensation. It's as if a work strikes a little chime, and the white noise of living momentarily gets swept away for one clear, immensely gratifying instant. The chime went off, for example, when I first heard Verdi's Requiem, Bach's English Suites, Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia, and of course some others. I can't claim that such works have revealed the Meaning of Life, since they don't give rise to cosmic thoughts or even words. Furthermore, it's dangerous for listeners to put their trust in that sort of feeling as somehow universally meaningful. After all, it may simply come down to a matter of you liking the piece so much, you can't imagine why anyone wouldn't. I must admit, for example, that not only did the bell ring once upon a time for a work as turgid as Bloch's America (certainly enjoyable, although I doubt its most fervent admirer would claim it an indispensable icon of the musical canon), but for decades it failed to ring for Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. At any rate, Arnold Rosner has rung the bell for me as much as any composer. A typical Rosner work becomes instantly and deeply important to me, and I know I'll be listening to it for many years to come.

Rosner strikes me as a kind of throwback. Although a relatively young man (almost exactly a year older than me, as it turns out), I don't think of him as writing Contemporary Music, because few postwar devices show up and because of the way the music moves—that is, in clear, definite phrases, with the pulse more or less regular and neither swamp-slow or photon-fast. On the other hand, he's not trying to raise the dead either. He's not dressing up as Mahler or Copland or Brahms. He seems to have more in common with the Classic Moderns than with today's young Turks or alte kocker, in that he's not looking for the next new thing, but rather, in the words of Pound, to "make it new."

You can hear other composers in Rosner's music—Hindemith, Hovhaness, Bloch, occasionally Vaughan Williams. However, you can hear other composers in just about everybody's music (almost nobody creates entirely from scratch), and Rosner's mix becomes a personal and strongly individual voice. For those who care (and I don't particularly), the music is tonal rather than atonal. Quartal harmonies and the old modes—some from the Renaissance, some from Middle Eastern music—fascinate the composer. There's a very strong intellectual component to the music as well; it's like watching a bridge rubber or chess battle working itself out. The counterpoint goes beyond the merely brilliant. It often downright astonishes. Scorcese and Altman, for example, make good, even great movies, but Spielberg is technically so far beyond either that he seems to play a completely different game. I consider Rosner as complex a contrapuntalist as Hindemith and Carter. Yet, as with those two, the technique is never the point. Rosner wants, above all, to move his listeners. In fact, I consider his greatest talent as a composer the ability to imagine the unfolding of great emotional impact. The technique is simply a way to get there, allowing him to realize a work's emotional goals.

On this CD, the big piece (in more than one sense of the phrase) is the Sextet. In his liner notes, Rosner remarks that the rich sound of the Brahms and Dvorák sextets partly inspired the work. Indeed, in the balance between "head and heart," Rosner very strongly reminds me of Brahms, although of course their idioms differ. Rosner's Sextet falls into two substantial movements: "Variations" and "Motet." Both movements riff off of the old chorale tune "Nun komm' der Heiden Heiland"—the tune, rather than the harmony —and in that sense, both are variations of a sort. In his liner notes, Rosner points out that he avoided Bach's well-known settings. A Renaissance arrangement by Praetorius inspired him, although the harmonies remain Rosner's own. I've not heard the Praetorius, but I have heard a setting by Scheidt and believe I know why Rosner gravitated toward the earlier take on the tune: the ambiguity of the tonality, as if caught somewhere between the extremes of modality and harmony. Rosner himself refers to a blend of "Renaissance" and "Baroque" in this work. The first movement is more "harmonic" and contains many Baroque contrapuntal procedures, culminating in a magnificent double fugue—or, more accurately, magnificent music that happens to be a double fugue. The second movement evokes Renaissance compositional procedures. The music moves differently in the two movements. Rosner constructs phrases and cadences differently: the first movement, in ways familiar to us through music from Bach to Mahler; the second, in less familiar ways—the dramatic "evenness" of a phrase by, say, Josquin or Palestrina.

"Variations" consists of eight variations on the chorale tune. Indeed, the chorale tune—excepting perhaps the first phrase, and that only at the very beginning and at the very end —is never quoted straight. This is very similar to the concept of the opening movement of Vaughan Williams's eighth symphony—variations without a theme. Furthermore, the variations' borders tend to blend into one another, rather than to clearly separate one section from the next, like (again) Vaughan Williams's Five Variants on "Dives and Lazarus." Consequently, one tends to think of the entire movement rather than this or that section. Like most composers since Beethoven, Rosner plays the double game: constructing variations interesting in themselves and yet part of a dramatic, rhetorical whole. The chorale tune roams into other paths which in turn tend to recall or lead back to the tune. It wanders in and out of foreground. I'm almost positive that, on the page, just about everything in that movement relates to some part of "Nun komm' der Heiden Heiland," but to the ear the tune wanders pretty far from home. The movement features two dynamic peaks—the first a "devil's harmonization" of the tune, the latter the double fugue, also the most rhythmically complex of the variations. Several different rhythms and pulses compete for dominance. Just deciding what should be heard at any given moment must have given the performers much to think about. The fugue breaks up into a transitional meditative passage, and we hear the first phrase of the chorale tune, ending with Rosner's final commentary on it.

The second movement, "Motet," works more like a Tudor fantasy. The chorale tune is less noticeable. In many cases, it functions as an architectural principle, often like a cantus firmus, rather than like a full-fledged theme. Rosner grows tendrils of music, their roots in the soil of the tune, but flowering into something different. Not only does the tune holds the movement together, but characteristic rhythms do so as well, especially a quarter followed by two eighths, and a scalar upward run of four sixteenths. Gradually, the chorale becomes more prominent until a climax breaks again into a final meditation. This time, however, the chorale tune has the last word, as if to affirm its eternal presence in the mind.

Again, I find this work in an exalted, limited company of chamber music. I won't embarrass either Rosner or myself by naming those scores I regard as its brothers in merit. I will say, however, that composers like Schubert and Brahms come to mind. On the other hand, Rosner succeeds maybe too well in his goal of richness of sound. There's nothing wrong with a sextet, but I keep wondering (greedy for sensation) how much more impact a full string ensemble would make—the difference between the slow movement to Barber's string quartet and the Adagio for Strings. I imagine that, as with the Barber, this would create two very different pieces from the same blueprint.

In my first review of Rosner's music, I worried that he seemed to want profundity all the time—that he had no "light" side. To me, the really great composers show you a wide range of human experience. Bach has Aus der Tiefe and the "Peasant" cantata. Elgar writes the symphonies and The Wand of Youth, Beethoven the fifth and the eighth symphonies, and so on. I needn't have fretted. There is indeed a lighter Rosner, although lightness does not imply lightweight. Besos sin cuento ("kisses without number"), a cycle of songs, setting six Spanish Renaissance love poems. The sentiments run from earthy to elegiac to teasing to tender. Rosner apparently wrote them just because he wanted to, without thought of immediate performance (the story of how the recording came about is pretty funny; you can read it in Rosner's CD liner notes). He gave himself the job of writing something without "overtones" of mortality or the religious. He succeeded pretty much, although I would argue that the fifth song, "Duermes, Licisca" ("sleep, Licisca"), about an aging woman, once a beautiful hellcat, is an archetypal ubi sunt and thus speaks to mortality. Rosner wrote the cycle for voice and the brilliant and sensual combination of Debussy's sonata for flute, viola, and harp. He adds a tambourine in the fourth song, "En JaČn" ("in JaČn"). The harp typically evokes the lute or guitar, while the "melody" instruments suggest a wordless voice. However, within this little quartet, Rosner achieves great color variety. For example, the third song, "Al Amor" ("to love," from whose verses Rosner gets the cycle's title) is only for voice and flute. Also, although Rosner has expressed a brighter point of view than usual, he has done so without compromise. The ensemble must be razor-sharp, often in unusual meters like 5/8 and 11/8, and the tunes themselves are damned difficult to sing. The melodies aren't especially bizarre or hard on the ear—in fact, they're beautiful—but they do require a really good singer. To me, they seem more congenial to instruments than to the voice, with long, long phrases and odd skips. They don't forgive a weak pair of lungs or a "sort-of" sense of pitch. I don't know what a Spanish speaker would make of the settings (like Rosner, my Spanish confines itself to menus and bits from the movies), but they certainly get across the poems' emotional points. The songs all come over strongly and vividly, with great changes of mood, and I can't really pick a favorite without mentioning them all. Wonderful.

Rosner wants to follow in Hindemith's footsteps and write a sonata for all the standard instruments. At this point, he's got only two to go: one for bassoon, one for double bass. He has created some stunning examples for cello, horn (both on Albany TROY163), and oboe (Centaur CRC2451): epic, heroic, poetic. The trombone sonata, in the words of the composer, is rather "big-boned," as befits the sound of the instrument. I must admit, however, that during my first couple of listens to the work, I thought I detected a whiff of exercise in it, but Rosner won me over. The harmonies are based on fourths and fifths, which will remind some of Hindemith, but I think Rosner simply wants to accommodate the natural bent of the instrument. The soloist's balance with the piano is one of the built-in problems of such a work, and Rosner specifies that the piano lid be open. The first movement reminds me of early Renaissance "Turmmusik," in three-part counterpoint. It takes really large strides and big breaths, and you'd think that three-part counterpoint isn't nearly enough to sustain the thought. You'd be wrong. I have no idea how Rosner brings it off. The middle movement meditates in a way that reminds me of Richard Yardumian's or Alan Hovhaness's slow movements—that tinge of Middle Eastern melismata alternating with chorale-like sections. Rosner throws in the wrinkle of a 7/8 meter, which never calls attention to itself. We hear instead a long, singing line. The third movement opens as a call to arms, which moves to a lilting triple-time. The two groups of ideas alternate and interpenetrate in sonata fashion. The sonata isn't all blare. Rosner constructs many builds and fadeaways. Trombonists in search of repertoire would do well to look this one up.

None of these pieces is easy. None of them gives away all its secrets immediately. The sextet in particular requires six heroes willing to invest a great deal of effort. The Sestetto Agosto do heroes' work. This is a terrific performance, although not a definitive one. You wouldn't expect it for a piece like this, any more than you'd expect players of a Beethoven string quartet to nail it on the first try. The piece needs more performances, more recordings, from many different players. It deserves no less. In the meantime, the Sestetto Agosto certainly give you the stature of the piece, in a committed, passionate reading, and their handling of the incredible textural and architectural problems earns all my respect. Pinotage will charm you out of your socks in the Besos sin cuento, while Julia Bentley clears the many high vocal hurdles (including the demand for a cruelly wide range) the composer has set before her. The sonata performers do well. Erickson has a fine tone, both loud and soft, while Angelina Tallaj successfully competes dynamically. I miss a certain amount of shaping in the performance, but, as I've said, these works reveal themselves over time.

This is volume three of Albany's series of Rosner's chamber music. I strongly recommend the other two: volume one features the cello and horn sonatas as well as an incredible tour de force for two pianos, Of Numbers and Bells (Albany TROY163); volume 2, powerful string quartets (Albany TROY210).

S.G.S. (April 2003)