ROCHBERG: Symphony No. 1 (1948-49, rev. 1977 & 2003).
Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Lyndon-Gee.
Naxos 8.559214 (B) (DDD) TT: 64:15

" Not deep the poet sees, but wide." Or so poet and critic Matthew Arnold said. I first came upon the music of George Rochberg in the Sixties, after he had been writing about fifteen years. At the time, he was one of the most powerful figures in American music, an editor at one of the big presses, and therefore a force in deciding whose work got published. I even had the occasion to perform some of it. The scores struck me then as well-written and trendy (in a bad way), but never got a hold of me. Szell liked to program Rochberg's Second Symphony, which counted for a great deal to me, since I idolized Szell, the symphony itself failed to stick with me.

Rochberg made a mini-splash in the early Seventies by announcing his switch from dodecaphony to a more Romantic-based music. He also gave up his editorship. Then he or his surrogates began to complain, like Lear, that his commissions had fallen off and that nobody loved him for himself. I had no dog in the fight, since I didn't care for Rochberg as Schoenberg or Rochberg as Mahler. He simply bored the pants off me no matter which approach he took. The violin concerto for Stern and the Caprice-Variations on Paganini raised their momentary cloud of dust and then disappeared. Unfortunately, it turned out that the tonal-atonal fights of the Fifties through the Seventies had become largely irrelevant to the way young composers actually wrote. Leonard Bernstein turned out to be far more germane to the new crop than Rochberg. At the end of the day, we have to judge Rochberg -- or any composer, for that matter -- not on his critical position nor on the means by which he produced his music, but on the finished score, and we can't establish quality a priori from style.

All this, of course, should lead somewhere, and it leads here: Rochberg's First Symphony knocked my socks off the moment I put it on the CD player. It's not that I haven't heard better contemporary symphonies, but that the score impressed me as the work of a composer with a brilliant, wide-ranging mind, full of possibility and a prodigious feel for the orchestra. The number of original, powerfully imaginative textures on practically every page left me with my mouth hanging open. Moreover, it's his first symphony, his first major work for orchestra. To someone of my generation, the idiom feels like a "squaring of the circle": a reconciliation of Stravinsky with Schoenberg, for decades the antipodal poles of Modern music. Indeed, in a passage from the composer quoted in the liner notes on his aims for the symphony, the names Stravinsky and Schoenberg alternate from sentence to sentence. Incidentally, Rochberg's other writings show a similarly wide intellectual embrace. It's probably not an accident that he and Dallapiccola, one of the most cultured figures in Western European art, hit it off.

I shouldn't leave anybody with the impression that this is easy music. From the standpoint of architecture and argument, it's especially difficult to follow. Just letting the music wash over you (my standard strategy as a young listener, which may explain why Rochberg failed to connect) probably won't get you anywhere. Hard, repeated listening might. The reason is that the symphonic argument doesn't end with a movement, but continues through the entire symphony. Great orchestration can't hurt, but the unfolding of the argument counts as the most powerful thing about the score. The approach may derive from the symphonic dramas of Bruckner and Mahler as well as from the cyclic mechanics of Franck, but it differs from all of them as well. For example, the cyclical style usually comes down to recurrence. After all, you've got to be able to recognize the cyclic bit when it arrives again. To me, at any rate, the return often seems arbitrary and clumsy. With Rochberg, the point is more transformation than recurrence, something that changes its context and, in so doing, is changed itself. In the early days of the symphony's performance history, Ormandy insisted on cutting out two movements -- a slow one and a scherzo. He also wanted the ending, one of the most daring things in the symphony, re-written (it ends way before you expect it to, like suddenly coming upon a sheer drop). Rochberg reluctantly agreed to the cuts, but held firm on his ending, thus souring his relationship with Ormandy, who tended to pout when thwarted. The slow movement became an independent piece, Night Music, and the scherzo a work for two pianos. Incidentally, other performers plagued Rochberg with demands for cuts in his major scores. Isaac Stern got him to cut fourteen minutes out of the violin concerto, which is one reason why you don't want to hear Stern's performance. At any rate, I can't imagine how those first audiences got much from the symphony in its mutilated state. It's like missing two acts from Macbeth.

Naxos has released what amounts to a mini-series of Rochberg, led by Lyndon-Gee. I've heard this release and the Violin Concerto, and both have turned me around on Rochberg's music. Obviously, I've got a lot of re-listening to do. The Saar-Brückners may not be the most refined ensemble I've ever heard, but they grapple with this symphony like Jacob wrestling with the angel. My only question is why haven't the major American orchestras taken up this score?

S.G.S. (March 2008)