Review By Peter Burwasser ,Fanfare,March 2011
Volume 4 of this Naxos retrospective of the piano music of George Rochberg presents a good representation of the late composer’s highly eclectic output. The Carnival Music is an example of his pastiche style, filled with strong dynamic and rhythmic contrasts, and allusions to, if not outright quotes of, other music. The title of the work may conjure a happy-go-lucky atmosphere, but Rochberg’s carnival has plenty of dark corners. Watch out for the creepy clowns. When writing in this manner, Rochberg set a high challenge, namely, can all of the disparate elements of the work, in this case a five-section suite, pull together in a cohesive way? To my ears, it is a stretch, as it usually is in this corner of Rochberg’s world. There is a good deal of very fine writing,
The Four Short Sonatas, completed in 1984, finds Rochberg firmly in command of his own voice, writing in the bold, modernistic style that made his early fame. As Sally Pinkas remarks in her usually perceptive notes, these works are conceived with a Scarlatti-like concision, yet contain a four-movement classical structure within a small space. In the third of the quartet, marked Allegro assai, the composer returns to full-blown tonality in a sort of homage to Haydn. There is a sense, in the later music of Rochberg (he died in 2005), that he relished the irony of such nostalgic gestures side by side with blistering chromaticism. It is widely misunderstood that Rochberg turned away from atonality in 1973 when he began to write tonal music, to the horror of his fellow academic serialists. He was merely making the completely sensible decision to abandon doctrinaire compositional rules. The biggest revelation for this listener in surveying this highly valuable series is how much more interesting and original his atonal music was throughout his career, even well after his so-called conversion.
Variations on an Original Theme is an early tour de force by the then 23-year-old composer. He himself liked it well enough to revise it in 1969, which is the version heard here. I find myself admiring Rochberg’s absorption of the Brahmsian model of grand theme and variations, with his broad range of dramatic constructions, but in the end, I really prefer to hear Brahms himself. Pinkas, as she has in the previous outings, plays with superb precision and insight.