CLASSICAL MUSIC SENTINEL:
For those of you who are avid collectors of chamber music, or more specifically intrigued by the logical inner workings of the string quartet and are always searching for new works in the genre, this new recording on the Divine Art label of music by composer John Rose may well be your cup of tea. A composer and choir conductor born in London in 1928 who at one time studied under Edmund Rubbra. His style is very much rooted in the past and I would imagine largely influenced by his upbringing spent surrounded by organs and church choirs. There is a hint of Shostakovich in the background, not so much a direct musical influence but rather using the composer as a subject matter. Something very much in evidence in the Essay on DSCH for piano, Op. 7 and the String Quartet No. 1, Op. 14 , which both use the DSCH (D/E-flat/C/B) motif as a thematic point of departure. DSCH is an acronym for Dmitri Shostakovich based on the German nomenclature of musical notation.
This music does not carry the weight of the world on its shoulders like Dmitri's, but it shares the same logical unfolding of material as in the former's 48 Preludes and Fugues for piano, with each and every motif and idea bounced around many times until everything comes to an unambiguous conclusion. Pianist Robert Melling and the Edinburgh Quartet mirror the music's clear intent and deliver a focused account.
This is a generously timed and attractively presented CD. The booklet tells us that John Rose was born in London and emigrated to South Africa with his parents in 1940. Several of his compositions were performed there, before “a long creative hiatus” that lasted until he resumed composition in 1993. He has also worked in education and as a choral conductor. The booklet also provides useful information on the artists, as well as notes on the music by John Rose himself. These are short, pithy commentaries indicating, in the main, the motifs from which the music is constructed, and the interrelation between the works presented and others in his catalogue. This approach is much to be preferred to the impenetrable philosophical theses we sometimes encounter, and even more so to the trite, effusively personal confessions now becoming common, but even so, in his brevity, he does the listener few favours. In addition, he did not want the different sections of each of the string quartets banded separately, and whilst this undoubtedly preserves the integrity of each work – they are both played without a break – a CD is often used as a study tool, and would certainly be useful in this case, and presenting twenty-six minutes of closely argued music in a single flow is not the best way to initiate the listener.
The programme is made up of three piano works plus two string quartets. The earliest music on the disc is the Essay on DSCH . (There is a little confusion in the booklet notes, one of the essays suggesting that the work was composed after 1993.) There is nothing in the composer's description to suggest that this is in any way a tribute to Shostakovich. Instead, it would appear that a motif from an earlier work struck him as similar to Shostakovich's musical cipher, prompting the composition of this work. The piece is sonorous and gritty by turns, extremely well written for the piano in a style that will evoke Tippett in some listeners' minds. There are moments of drama, and the piece closes with a lengthy, tranquil coda closing on a sonorous chord of A major. It is a compelling work to which one wants to return, but a certain emotional aridity will limit its attractiveness to some. This impression is confirmed in the first of the two sets of Preludes and Fugues for piano that share an opus number. Here, in spite of its clear and dramatic structure, the fugue does not quite succeed in leaving the world of the academia. The prelude, on the other hand, is based – as is the fugue – on a theme that stubbornly refuses to leave the mind once you've heard it, and it's not every composer who achieves that! The second prelude is dark and heavy, with thick textures, the whole very serious and not a little oppressive. In this case the composer's note allows the listener to follow the musical argument even at a first hearing. Once again I am put in mind of early and middle-period Tippett here, especially the fugal writing in some of that composer's string quartets. The music is discursive and convincing, appealing perhaps more to the head than the heart. As for the performances, Robert Melling plays all three works with what appears to be total mastery and conviction. The composer will surely have been deeply satisfied and appreciative.
From its arresting opening to the lively, conclusive finish, the Quartet No. 1 confirms the impression of a composer of great seriousness, uninterested in surface glamour and who expects his listeners to work at the music. Robert Simpson was another in this vein, and I would add his name to the list of composers Rose's music can evoke, as well as, for different reasons, those of Bartók, Tippett again, and even Hindemith, names I cite merely in the hope of giving some impression of what this fascinating music sounds like. The Quartet never sounds as though it were conceived for any other medium, but there are times, as indeed there are in the piano works, when one would welcome a little more variety of colour, and there is a stratospheric passage just before the halfway mark that, striking though it is, rather tires the ear. There is, if anything, even less contrast of texture and colour in the Second Quartet , and for once I feel the work contains a passage or two where the composer stretches his motifs further than they can really bear. But once again one is struck by the seriousness of intent here, consummate craftsmanship, and a result that leaves the listener eager to return and explore the work further. Both works receive fine performances from the Edinburgh Quartet, though listening without a score I suspect that there are one or two passages in the Second Quartet where the group is particularly stretched. These are also those passages where I feel the composer's inspiration is flagging, in which case the two impressions may well be linked.
This is a fine disc of uncompromising music from a little known composer. I recommend it to all those who like to stray from the beaten track.
John Rose is an English composer, born in 1928. Available information on the man is vestigial (the booklet isn't very helpful) but suffice it to say that most of the works on this disc date from a creative reawakening in the 90s. Divine Art's website avers that “John Rose writes music that embraces a postmodern freedom – allowing him to build tonal and memorable music often with a strong Neo-baroque sound, strongly inspired by Bach – although Shostakovich is another source of inspiration. This is not to limit his work, which is varied and rich, but emphasizes his distinctive linear style.” I'm not sure that I buy that bit about “postmodern-freedom”. To my ears, it sounds deeply conservative. There is a bit of an idée fixe about Shostakovich, though the music never for a moment sounds like a parody of the Russian. But it is more than just the use of the DSCH motif in several of the works. Having been gently chided in these pages for pointing out that the recent CD of David Bowerman (Fanfare 34:1) betrayed not a hint of the passing of the last hundred years, I will say Rose's music is pretty much in the same category. But it's an observation , not a criticism, let alone a complaint. All the works on this disc are substantial and repay careful listening. It's just that they are safe: There's no daring, no deep emotions of any sort, rather an earnestness which the composer gets away with because, I sense, there is also a good deal of integrity in the music. It is so tempting to criticize a piece of music for not being what it never set out to be (see my review of Adamo's Little Women in this issue); yet surely it is reasonable to observe where a composer is clearly working within his (or her) comfort zone to the detriment of the possible experiences the listener might have had otherwise.
On the CD, the two quartets frame the group of piano works, of which the Essay on DSCH, op 7, is the earliest, dating from 1970. This is a substantial work described by the composer as a “variation of sonata form.” It is a frustration of the composer's notes to this CD that they resolutely refuse to explain anything. It is like a writer describing a building by saying, “Here is a door, six feet away is a window; here is the upper floor: look at the bricks,” and so on. This is music about itself, occasionally breaking out into emotive dance-like sections, that are all too subsumed in the general rigor. And yet, it's an enjoyable listen, something I did repeatedly for this review. The preludes and fugues are in two groups: a prelude and a fugue, then the other prelude and two fugues. They are dated 2001 and have a combined op. number of 20, which is clearly low for a composer then in his 70's. The preludes function in a somewhat restricted emotional and descriptive ambit (in keeping with a model of the Shostakovich set, if indeed that was a model); the fugues are clear and interesting. In both works, Robert Melling surely delivers performances to do the music justice, and more.
The first quartet (1997) is full of DSCH – dangerous in one sense because it obviously courts comparisons with, say, Shostakovich's Eighth. However, there is a robustness and a sense of forward moving in the thinking even if the compositional style lacks the energy and drive of, say, Robert Simpson's. The four sections of the work run together satisfyingly and there is a real sense of drama. The Edinburgh Quartet turns in a committed performance, on top of the music, though occasionally sounding strained in the more strenuous passages. The second quartet (1999), a substantial work at 26 minutes, refers to the Beethoven op.135 Quartet as well as self-referencing the choral work Psalm XLII, which received its premiere during the quartet's composition. I find it less inviting, though again, there is no gainsaying the assuredness of Rose's compositional grasp. Again the movements proceed without a break, and here I must enter a gentle complaint: Each quartet is presented as a single track. It's not just that that makes life harder for the reviewer; I see no reason that the listener shouldn't be guided to the start of each section (or even subsection, as Marco Polo used to do for Havergal Brian's symphonies). Apparently this was at the composer's request. However I suggest that tracking and other presentation matters should be for the listener's benefit, not the composer's.
Listening to the disc all the way through, personally I find the transfer from the strings to piano acoustically awkward (as usual) and it isn't helped here by the different venues employed. The string quartet sound is full, if very slightly boxy, but the piano sound is fine. As I have said, the performances are clearly committed and, if the composer pulls his punches, the music doesn't, and is well worth investigating.