reviews


Albany Troy 1216

Listen with care to the music of Morris Rosenzweig, or you're likely to miss something important, compelling, witty, or lovely. This is not to say that his music is overly dense, or even forbiddingly complex. Rather, the most striking aspect is his skill at stuffing complete, pithy thoughts into very small packages. His individual movements are not especially short (á la Webern or Kurtág), but his phrases have a similar urgency and condensation, and every note seems to be placed with great care and skill.

These qualities are especially apparent in the opening work, Past Light. The title (as well as the others on the disc) suggests extra-musical associations, but I prefer to listen past these suggestions and focus on the intimate conversations between the four players. Brian Hulse's fine notes describe the tensions that often exist between hearing or analyzing music vertically and/or horizontally. Past Light and his other works might suggest an emphasis on the former, but I sense that his linear thinking is not so much subjugated as truncated. I'm not aware of serial methodology per se, but there are numerous examples of phrases turning back on themselves in clearly audible fashion. Conductor James Baker leads the New York New Music Ensemble in a tight, cogent reading.

The opening of reprise is skittish, nervous, and brittle, with certain pitches and pitch patterns tossed about and repeated, leading to a "cadence" in a brief unison in the five instruments before spinning off in other, but similar directions and textures. I describe this 90-second passage as a way to emphasize the clarity of his rhetoric even in a language that some consider forbidding. NOVA is the superb, thoroughly engaged ensemble for the reading. Contrasting outbursts supply the major thrust behind Just One Step Beyond for viola and cimbalom. Another duo, person, place, etc. for flutes and percussion finds the composer exploring both a myriad of sonic possibilities as well as references to the distant past.

The biggest work is Rough Sleepers, inspired by the unlikely but timely subject of homelessness. It includes the recorded voices of lives that have been disrupted by a variety of forces, including hurricane Katrina. The voices are not disembodied or fragmented, but heard in complete sound bites, a presence not usually afforded them in their everyday lives. The composer leads the Canyonlands Ensemble in a moving performance.

Rosenzweig's efforts are supported by a cast of top-flight musicians for every work. Clarinetist Jean Kopperud and cellist Christopher Finckel are standouts, as is the Canyonlands Horn Quartet in A Table of the Most Used Chords, the most extroverted work in the disc, playful at times, ominous at others.

There are critics (perhaps even a majority) who hear music that is generally atonal and rarely lyrical (in any traditional sense of that word), pull the label "academic" out of their back pocket, and use the damning description to excuse themselves from any deeper examination. For those prone to such easy dismissives, Rosenzweig's music may be a bracing antidote. While repeated hearings deepened my appreciation of his art, I enjoyed each one his pieces from the first exposure. This seldom happens in my experience, no matter the language employed. This is fine, important music, expertly played and recorded.

Michael Cameron, Fanfare

 

...gloriously scatological and fun, at times jazzy...

This well constructed piece hopefully will become an established addition to the viola repertoire.

...a sincere and agonised tribute to survivors of hurricane Katrina and other homeless, street dwellers from American cities.

...a sound collage of real audio clips from the people, themselves; cripples, the recently homeless, street buskers, and prostitutes all jostle for one another in a riot of urban tragedy...

The playing, however, is uniformly good, throughout, with performances of character and warmth. The production values are also high, with sound that is exceptionally well balanced and precise.

...one of America's most intriguing composers.

Barnaby Rayfield, Fanfare

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Albany Troy 907

I recently had a conversation with the composer Richard Wernick, who was for years a celebrated teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, in which he recounted an informal study he conducted with his Penn colleague George Crumb. They were interested in calculating the percentage of their graduate students who actually continued to write music in some sort of professional capacity. The number they arrived at was seven percent. This, from one of the most prestigious musical composition departments in the world. Nobody ever said this was an easy way to make a living.

Morris Rosenzweig, though not a student of Wernick when he labored at Penn as a grad student, is remembered by the elder composer as a stand-out, a brash talent. And so does he continue to be, as a solid member of the seven-percent club. The music on this CD, like the material on the previous Albany release of chamber music I reviewed positively in these pages, has a depth of expression and plasticity of form that is both fascinating and deeply satisfying. Rosenzweig employs a kind of personalized polychromaticism that is highly controlled, coupled with a sense for narrative and poetic nuance that can almost be called neo-Romantic. In my review of his chamber work Melpomene, I commented on being struck by the sense of expansiveness that is achieved with economical gestures; "You slip into this shimmering soundscape and encounter an aural alternate universe." This applies to the solo piano music here, Points and Tales, classically conceived as a group of 12 pieces based on the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. There is density at every turn, regardless of the dynamic level or the actual quantity of notes. Rosenzweig's ability to shape his unconventional language into a coherent and colorful package is extraordinary.

The songs are, to my ears, somewhat less accessible, or in any case, demanding of more intensive listening. The structure is elegantly balanced, nine songs bracketed by solo piano, with an interlude at midpoint. The texts of the songs derive from a number of classical sources, in the original languages, so that the soloist must switch between English, Italian, Chinese, and German. Rosenzweig has a distinctive sense for piano accompaniment, which does not so much follow the vocal line as provide a counterpoint, lending this music an unusually rich texture.

In both the piano music and the song cycle, Rosenzweig's music is vitally dependent on the ability of the performers to render precise gradations of dynamics and tonality, and in this regard he is extremely well served by the artists on this recording. Stephen Gosling, a British native now working in the US (where he attended Juilliard), is emerging as one of the finest proponents of contemporary music of his generation. And Lani Poulson and Susan Wenckus seem to have the full measure of the beautiful wisdom radiating from this exceptional music. Peter Burwasser

Peter Burwasser, Fanfare

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Albany Troy 710

"...music of considerable individualism and genuine beauty... it is useless to relegate this music to the background; it must be accorded some degree of focused attention. Such attention will be rewarded with material of beautiful texture and structure, and almost paradoxically, immense scope. You slip into this shimmering soundscape and encounter an aural alternative universe... The performances here are consistently superb."

Peter Burwasser, Fanfare

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Stuttgarter Zeitung, Feb. 13, 2001

The Afternoon Rocker

Promising pieces, superior performers

"... (the performers) all launched into the pieces, sounded their depths and performed them superbly. The composers couldn't have found better advocates for their premier performances.

And the composer Morris Rosenzweig didn't even have to look. The musicians said: 'We want to perform this piece.' Meaning 'Trace' for two pianos and percussion. It doesn't take long to understand why the musicians are enthusiastic about this piece. 'Trace' is a wonderfully told story, full of poetry and promise. The music shines and sparks. Sometimes familiar, sometimes foreign. That was the work of the excellent quartet made up of the pianists Susan Winkus and Markus Stange and percussionists Lazlo Hudacsek and Daniel Buess."

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CRI CD 787

Fanfare, July/August 1998

Rosenzweig... [is] a first-rate composer. While he employs a modern idiom, his sense of the beauty of instrumental tone and his clear sense of form deserve a wide audience.

"Roman Passacaglias... immediately engages the listener with its beautiful, transparent surfaces, but also rewards further listening by revealing lovely architecture beneath the surface. The same approach to instrumental writing can be heard in Angels, Emeralds and the Towers. 'Spring Wine Song' [from On the Wings of Wind] is particularly beautiful, and the harried repetition of a phrase (translated as "While they exault") in 'the Fleas' borders on brilliance. Dialogue in Three Parts... [is] a characteristically wrought three-movement form.

Performances are convincing throughout... Very highly recommended."

American Record Guide, November/December 1998

Common to all the pieces [on this disc] is a mature voice. Rosenzweig's melodies generally consist in short, distinct phrases describing shapely arcs, or in long lines of more conjunct intervals. More important, they are expressive and, often, memorable. All of the pieces on this disc have their pleasures, but two really stand out: Roman Passacaglias... [a] compelling piece... and the Quartet. Both of these pieces exhibit the linear fascination discussed above, but there is, in each of them, much more. This Quartet is very definitely Rosenzweig's own... It is very well written and rewarding to listen to. All of the performances on this excellent disc are very good...

Salt Lake Tribune, April 9, 1997 Review of Quartet

"... Move over Bartok and Shostakovich. Make room for... Rosenzweig. The new composition brimmed with musical substance. It is superbly cohesive, while offering its listeners plenty of entertaining variety. The 18-minute composition glided into the soul with timeless magic."

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CRI CD 705

Fanfare, March/April 1996

"The present release features what, ideally, many more should: good, stimulating music by living composers... which is why I so admire this release. Its substance presumes its audience's taste and savior faire. This is music of poise and charmed intelligence, its idiom that of an evolved past... As with all good music of heart and mind, its Dionysian and Apollonian aspects reflect the maker's personality and craft----out, as it were, in fresh air and sunshine... Musically and production wise a terrific piece of work. "

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Centaur CRC 2103

Fanfare, March/April 1992:

"The two movements of Morris Rosenzweig's Diptych are Another Order of Cat and Consider the Window. The composer describes the piece as 'a kind of musical cartoon. Both parts tell their own short colorful music-cartoon tales.' Another... composer, John Zorn, claims the same source of inspiration, in a recent work for the Kronos Quartet. Zorn's music and Rosenzweig's share a similar skittish energy. But where Zorn is cute and slapdash, Rosenzweig is meticulous, writing a music full of subtle balances and hidden continuities... Rosenzweig's [music] is chock full of invention and intensity, leavened with a droll and subtle wit... He is certainly a composer whose music I look forward to. Rosenzweig is also a dandy conductor. These performances all have the high sheen and scrupulous accuracy of the best new music playing in New York. [This recording] has a spark to it which is often lacking in more 'accessible' music... bright energy and intelligence."

American Record Guide, March/April 1992

"Here is a disc of well-crafted, expressive music by two composers born in the early 50's who have managed to avoid the lure of cheap gimmicks and fashionable trends. Diptych, by Morris Rosenzweig, is a 20-minute atonal serenade for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, pointillistic in style, restrained and decorative in mood, much concerned with delicate instrumental filigree and evanescent sonorities. I found it interesting and pleasurable..."

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