ROSNER: Requiem, op. 59 (1973).
Kelley Hollis (soprano); Feargal Mostyn-Williams (countertenor); Thomas Elwin (tenor); Gareth Brynmor John (baritone); Crouch End Festival Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra/Nick Palmer.
Toccata Classics TOCC 0545 TT: 69:22.

Uneven, but mighty. If you've never even heard of Arnold Rosner, you won't surprise me. So far, his music hasn't appeared on major labels and no star orchestra or conductor has taken him up. He wrote outside the trends of music, including tonal music, for most of his career. His work tends to eschew irony and artistic distancing for the dramatic, epic, and bold. Even his sense of musical movement owes more to classic Modernist composers like Bloch, Vaughan Williams, and Hovhaness than it does to, say, John Adams (either one). Rosner went to school in the Sixties and Seventies, a bad time for a composer speaking his language, since the academies at that time were stuffed with post-Webernian serialists and the avant-garde convinced that they had revolutionized music forever and determined, many of them, to stamp out musical "reactionaries." He studied with, among others, Lejaren Hiller, who engaged in computer music and stochastics. You could have predicted conflict. Rosner was later to say that he learned practically nothing from the composition faculty. At any rate, after repeated rejection of the score he submitted as his thesis, he switched to music theory and earned a doctorate on the music of Alan Hovhaness, the first one ever. In the meantime, he continued to compose, supporting himself as a teacher of music history at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn (CUNY). Most of his music remains unheard, including major scores, simply because it hasn't been recorded. I love almost everything he wrote. I consider much of his chamber music the equal of Brahms's, although of course it sounds nothing like. His orchestral and vocal music ranges from quietly intense to big and powerful.

He completed the Requiem in 1973, beginning it as an opera based on Ingmar Bergman's classic The Seventh Seal. However, he failed to get permission from Bergman after he had composed a considerable amount of music. Much of it went into the Requiem. It reminds me in many ways of Berlioz's Requiem, in that moments of tremendous imagination are sometimes interrupted by pure bombast. However, it doesn't follow the Catholic liturgy but collects texts from various sources -- an "anthology" work (like Vaughan Williams's Dona nobis pacem) -- and if nothing else, it shows the range of Rosner's reading or interests. It unfolds in ten sections:
• Overture: The Seventh Seal (Revelation 8)
• Recitative: ”Ein Wort, ein Satz" (Benn)
• Toccata: Musica Satanica
• Ballade: "Le Neiges d'antan" (Villon)
• Sutra: "Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo" (Tibetan Book of the Dead)
• Madrigal: "To All, to Each" (Whitman)
• Organum: "Lasciate ogni speranze" (Dante)
• Prayer: Kaddish (Jewish liturgy)
• Passacaglia: Libera me
• und wieder Dunkel, ungeheuer
These movements, rather than offering a ritual for the release of grief, constitute different meditations on death not only from individual writers, but from different cultures. In a certain way, one can consider it an agnostic's Requiem.
The longest movement, laid out in several contrasting sections, "Overture" begins with a sonic deluge, a forte whirlwind à la Hovhaness, not yet completely assimilated into Rosner's mature style. It startles, but it very quickly becomes bluster. Gradually, it begins to coalesce into something fascinating at a fabulous passage for trumpets, evoking perhaps the four horsemen signaling to each other as they ravage and lay waste. If this was intended for the opera, I would say it belongs to the storm scene near the end of the film. A richly-voiced chorus enters in chorale style to describe the Lamb opening the seventh seal. The chords move in unusual ways, often unpredictably. You never rest in the key you expect. The male soloists comment with the opening to the Dies irae chant in music that evokes early Renaissance canzone style, with more Landini cadences than even Landini allowed himself in the space. Rosner's eclecticism (yet always in his own voice) adds to the strangeness of expression, the distancing of the listener from familiar musical ground. Rosner varies these elements for the rest of this uneven and mostly startlingly beautiful movement.
" Recitative" ("Ein Wort, ein Satz" -- a word, a phrase) sets a poem by one of my least favorite German writers, Gottfried Benn. Benn's poetry displays the chief fault of a lot of German poets -- a hankering for transcendence without earning it, mainly by using vague, inflated language, like "profound," "immense," and "space." It also believes that the state of the poet's soul nececessarily interests others. However, Rosner's music resuscitates the poem, with an intense chromatic line in the tenor solo and a jaw-dropping, gorgeous accompaniment played by a percussion ensemble.
An instrumental "Toccata" follows. The subtitle "Musica Satanica" gives away its mood but doesn't prepare you for its violence. The music moves like a witches' ride -- in frenzied triple time, with blaring brass, screeching high winds, and brutal percussion, as little fragments very similar to the traditional Dies irae chant peek through. The percussion writing again stands out. In its scoring, However, the best thing about the movement is Rosner's sure sense of when to pull back, however slightly.

The brutality gives way to an achingly beautiful setting of François Villon's "Ballade des dames du temps jadis" (ballade of ladies of long ago), with its well-known refrain "Mais oú sont les neiges d'antan" (where are the snows of yesteryear). Strings, a feathery harp, with occasional woodwind and soft brass commentary support a gorgeous line for soprano solo. Again, Landini progressions built into the melodic line (not just at cadences) bring the 14th and 15th centuries to the present.

The next movement describes the torments of death with a setting of two Buddhist texts: one a traditional chant for the prolonging of life, the other a catalogue of horrors from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Like "Musica Satanica," this depicts an apocalypse. It begins quietly, with tenors and basses, an octave apart, intoning on one note, even one syllable per note -- perhaps Rosner's romanticizing of Buddhist chant -- and it goes on for a relentless six minutes of its ten in crescendo before it breaks. Gradually, every one of those syllables strikes like a hammer. The women sing of the plane of "radiances" (the men continuing to chant beneath) before the orchestra, heavy on percussion and brass, goes nuts. The women join the men's chant at the fifth and the next octave for a huge climax. The break hardly lets up, however. The bass solo recites the terrors of death with grand-guignol relish. It gives way to the men's chant, fortissimo to the end, so abrupt you feel as if you've run out of road and fall off a sudden cliff. From my description, you'd think "Sutra" a bore. Rosner may risk monotony, but he achieves a nearly unbearable intensity. It reminds me of the vignette in the Sistine Chapel painting, where a man has his hand over one terrified eye, while staring at Christian Ragnarok, unable both to look and to look away. This entire movement rivals the Berlioz Requiem's "Lacrymosa" in effective garishness.
Since it's hard to follow an effective forte movement directly with another, Rosner gives us another breather, a setting for a capella choir excerpted from Whitman's "Carol of Death," part of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd. However, this movement counts as one of the weakest, despite beautiful passages. Rosner repeats lines and phrases in the same rhythm to an extent that you wish he had cut some of it. The ending, however, is gorgeous.

One has to admire Rosner's compositional guts, the risks he's willing to run, and how often he succeeds, for his next movement sets Dante's "Lasciate ogni speranzi, voi ch'entrate" (abandon all hope, ye who enter here) from the Inferno for the male vocal trio and, initially, a small chamber group. Again, the idiom derives from early Renaissance music and features the Landini cadence, which we first heard in the "Dies irae" fragment (Dante and the supposed author of the hymn, Thomas of Celano, were near-contemporaries). This is not a big bow-wow rendering. The smaller scale and the distancing effect of an older musical idiom take the curse of Significance off the section.
A setting, for solo soprano and orchestra, of the Kaddish, a traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, follows. The Kaddish is unusual in that it doesn't mention death at all. Instead it praises the power of God. I call it the "dayenu" thread in Judaism, also found rhetorically in the Book of Job. "Dayenu" means, roughly, "it would have been enough for us." For example, if God had only brought us out of Egypt, it would have been enough. That God gave us life and creation should be enough -- an attitude necessary to maintain through centuries of trouble. There are many ways to say Kaddish -- celebratory, comforting, resigned even. Rosner chooses something else: a stern, awe-filled, insistent trod, emphasizing an incomprehensible majesty, dangerous (as with Lot's wife) to get too close to or to look upon directly.

In the "Libera me," an extravaganza for chorus and orchestra, Rosner uses the passacaglia, one of his favorite forms and one in which can you can find some of his finest music. A Baroque structure, the passacaglia repeats an initial bass line and puts variations on top of it. It sounds simple, but the real trick is to construct a coherent, necessary whole from the disparate variations. Bach's c-minor passacaglia, one of the greatest, provides the inspiration, the level to strive for. The text prays for the deliverance of the dead from the terrors of the Last Judgment, and it counts as one of the most elaborate in the score. It begins with a "de profundis" bass line climbing tortuously out of the dark. The counterpoint becomes increasingly intricate as new voices enter, with the bass idea varied at various speeds and spawning subsidiary ideas. According to the notes by Walter Simmons, there are 18 variations. A fantasia on the bass idea follows, which includes orchestral shrieks like those found in the "Libera me" of the Verdi Requiem. A reference to the cataclysms of the first movement round it off.

A subdued orchestral coda, "und wieder Dunkel, ungeheuer" (and again the immense darkness), enters without a break. The line comes from the Benn poem we heard earlier. The liner notes refer to the movement's "mysterious calm," but that's not what I get. To me, it's the calm of a battlefield of dead soldiers or leveled city. Calm? Mysterious? I suppose, but also chilling. To me, Rosner stares down an abyss. So forget the calm of Fauré and Duruflé, the consolation of Verdi, or the ceremonial dignity of Berlioz. The ending of a requiem goes a long way to determining the emotional meaning of the entire work, especially a "philosophical," rather than "liturgical" requiem, such as Rosner gives us. I've called it an agnostic's requiem. We know nothing. After all we learn from various "wisdom lore" about the terrors and visions of solace surrounding death, we still know nothing. We face a mystery which we may or may not penetrate.

With this disc, Rosner receives a marvelous recording -- performance, engineering -- of a major, complex work. Without a score, I can't say nearly exactly how accurate it is, but, oh baby, it delivers. Consider that this is probably its first performance ever, the intricacies and the emotional melée of the score, and you realize the achievement. The soloists sing in many cases over-the-top texts with intelligence and sensitivity. The Crouch End Festival Chorus (whom I hadn't heard of), a fine, disciplined medium-size group, goes a long way to untangling Rosner's counterpoint with fine tone. Kudos to the choral director, David Temple. The LPO may not be the best orchestra in London, but it ain't Slim Jims either. I have no ideas how many rehearsals it had, but it couldn't have been many, and they champion the piece as if it were by someone you'd heard of. Nick Palmer has had a small career and deserves a bigger one. At least he has a career, and he's relatively young yet. He has mastered a complicated score (which he will likely never conduct again). Another outstanding disc from producer Walter Simmons and Martin Anderson's super-enterprising Toccata Classics label. "

S.G.S. (March 2022)