CR053 Cover

Arnold Rosner: The Masses (CR053)

Review by John Quinn, MusicWeb International

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Some years ago, I heard and enjoyed two CDs by Blossom Street and Hilary Campbell. First, there was a disc of Christmas music (review) and a couple of years later there was a disc of British folk song arrangements (review). I mean no disrespect to those previous releases when I say that this disc, however, is infinitely more challenging – and rewarding.

The music of Arnold Rosner was completely unknown to me but, on searching Musicweb International, I see that the ever-enterprising Toccata Classics label has already released a disc of his chamber music (review) and no less than three CDs of his orchestral music (review ~ review ~ review). There have been other recordings, including a Naxos release of his Fifth Symphony (1973) (review). That work is of particular relevance to this present disc because Rosner regarded his Fifth Symphony as “something of a mass without voices” When this disc of two of his mass settings came along I asked to review it, being intrigued by the prospect of a modern American composer whose music was strongly influenced by Renaissance vocal polyphony.

First, a few biographical details, for which I’m indebted to the booklet essays by Carson Cooman and Walter Simmons. Rosner was born in New York City into a Jewish family (a fact which makes it all the more remarkable that he should have written settings of the Mass). As a student, he seems to have had difficulty pursuing the path in life that he truly desired. Though he showed early promise both as a pianist and composer, his family were understandably wary of the career prospects of classical composers and so encouraged him to study mathematics instead, which he did. However, in 1966, with a maths degree already under his belt, he was able to enrol in the University of Buffalo to study music. There, he found himself continually swimming against the tide of serialist orthodoxy, and his desire to compose music founded upon melody and traditional harmony met with significant opposition. To an extent he circumvented this by pursuing studies in music theory instead of composition and by this means he was able to obtain a doctorate. Thereafter he wrote the music that he wanted to compose and made his living through a variety of academic posts in and around the New York City area.

Apparently, it was while studying at Buffalo that he became seriously interested in the music of the Renaissance and early Baroque and this led him to write the first of his three a cappella Mass settings in 1967. This was Missa Greensleeves, Op 31. That work was performed by a student choir at Buffalo but, apparently, only one movement from the two later masses was ever performed in the composer’s lifetime. Carson Cooman tells us that Missa Greensleeves is closer to the Renaissance models than the two works that Hilary Campbell has chosen to record.

Cooman comments that “Rosner found a characteristically personal approach to the genre blending Renaissance contrapuntal practice with his free approach to modality and his desire for the dramatic contrasts of romantic emotional expression. The result is music that is both deeply connected to traditional Renaissance models while at the same time being completely different from them in the affectual language used and the moods created.” That is a statement of crucial importance. Before attempting to describe the music and performances I should say very firmly that what we have here is no mere pastiche of Renaissance polyphony. On the contrary, Rosner has used that model as a springboard for highly individual music. At all times he is deeply respectful of the Renaissance tradition but in no way is he fettered by it. Instead, he has created music which contains highly complex contrapuntal writing and searching chromatic harmonies. Furthermore, though I haven’t seen scores, I would imagine, on the basis of what I’ve heard, that Rosner probably uses changes of metre from time to time to create, in a wholly beneficial way, a degree of rhythmic instability. It sounds to me as if the music bristles with difficulty. Not only is the writing often very complex and chromatic – I should imagine that accidentals abound – but also the singers, and the sopranos in particular, are often pushed to the top of their ranges.

I understand that in both of the masses on this disc Rosner used a cantus firmus, as was the common practice among Renaissance composers. When I’ve listened to Renaissance masses, such as Josquin’s Missa L’homme armé I have usually found it quite easy to detect the presence of the cantus firmus. Though I don’t mean it as a criticism, I have to say that I could not pick out the cantus melody in either of these Rosner settings; that, I’m sure, is because the contrapuntal writing is so very full.

The ‘Kyrie’ of Missa L’homme armé begins with polyphonic writing that soon becomes intricate. Almost at once I was struck by the purity of sound and the clarity of lines that Blossom Street achieve. The ‘Christe’ is more chromatic and harmonically adventurous while ‘Kyrie’ II has more urgency, probably because, I think, there’s a greater preponderance of quavers in the writing. The close of the movement features some unexpected key changes. The ‘Gloria’ opens with a passage of hushed homophonic chords which invest the music with a sense of mystery. At ‘Laudamus te’ the music bursts into life with a complex fugal passage initiated by the basses. This ushers in a episode of teeming textures and vigorous contrapuntal writing. I would imagine this music, which I’d characterise as Renaissance with 20th century “attitude”, is extremely challenging to sing. The close of the movement is absolutely exuberant.

You might say that the opening of the ‘Credo’ is right out of the Renaissance playbook, except that the harmonic language is much more challenging and the vocal parts cover a very wide compass. A highlight for me is the passage commencing at ‘Et incarnatus est’, in which the homophonic music is slow and mysterious. When Rosner gets to ‘Et sepultus est’ he strikes an awestruck note, not least through his intriguing harmonies. ‘Et resurrexit’ is set to a jubilant fugue, led off by the sopranos, and this paves the way for complex polyphony. The concluding ‘Amen’ is fervent.

The ‘Sanctus’ contains music which, to my ears, is the most harmonically complex we’ve heard to date; the language is really searching. The ‘Hosanna’ begins with a fast, vigorous fugue which leads to a jubilant conclusion. The music sounds very taxing to sing. The ‘Benedictus’, by contrast, is hushed and relatively simple (track 4, 4:51). By putting the voices in their higher register Rosner achieves gentle luminosity and the music is very lovely. The ‘Hosanna’ s reprised. The ‘Agnus Dei’ begins with slow, rapt polyphony which gradually grows in power. After a while, at the second ‘Agnus’, the music also seems quicker but I think this is achieved solely through the use of shorter note values; I believe the pulse remains the same. The third ‘Agnus’ is rather more tranquil in mood, though the harmonic language is more questing. You think that the movement is going to end quietly but then Rosner springs a surprise by setting the words ‘Dona nobis pacem’ to affirmative, strong music; is this how the Mass will conclude? No: there’s a further surprise when, after a lovely transition, Rosner reprises the music of ‘Agnus Dei’ I. Without seeing a score, I can’t be sure that this is a note-for-note re-visitation of the opening material, though I think it may be. By this master stroke Rosner brings Missa L’homme armé to a radiant, hushed conclusion which is deeply satisfying.

Missa In nomine is no less impressive. The music of the ‘Kyrie’ acquires urgency and complexity as it unfolds and though that section ends in tranquillity, the ‘Christe’ takes that urgency even further. The second ‘Kyrie’ builds from fairly subdued foundations to a powerful middle section before fading back to a quiet close. The ‘Gloria’ follows the example of Missa L’homme in that it opens with quiet homophony before, at ‘Laudamus te’ festive polyphony erupts. From here on the writing is very exciting, as is the performance; it’s real virtuoso stuff. At ‘Qui tollis’ the music becomes quieter, though it continues to move forward with energetic purpose until at ‘Quoniam tu solus’ the festivities break out again. The remainder of the movement is thrillingly jubilant. As a whole, the music of this movement is consistently full on; it must be exhausting but exhilarating to sing and the members of Blossom Street bring it vividly to life.

The ‘Credo’ begins with quiet and very chromatic polyphonic writing which soon grows in urgency. At ‘Deum de Deo’ the use of irregular rhythms heightens the urgent nature of the music. I like the way that Rosner uses the upper three voice parts at ‘Et incarnatus’ to convey innocent freshness. ‘Crucifixus’ is hushed and awestruck. There’s real excitement at ‘Et resurrexit’ and in the passage that follows there are some effective rhythmic surprises; the text seems fly by. In the last two or three minutes the soprano line sounds punishingly high at times but Hilary Campbell’s sopranos are equal to the challenge. After a strong opening to the ‘Sanctus’, there’s sinuous contrapuntal writing at ‘Pleni sunt cæli’; this is an example of a passage where I suspect the vocal lines are full of accidentals. The ‘Hosanna’ (track 10. 3:32 is fast and exultant. The ‘Benedictus’ (from 5:51) is somewhat more relaxed; much of the music is subdued. As in the companion mass, the ‘Hosanna’ is reprised. The opening of ‘Agnus Dei’ is mostly quiet, though as time progresses the music picks up speed and acquires urgency. The ‘Dona nobis pacem’ is especially fervent and we are told in the notes that this was a deliberate and joyous response by Rosner to the decision of the USA to pull out of Vietnam after the January 1973 peace accord.

In between the two masses Hilary Campbell gives us the chance to hear something different in the shape of ‘Peace, My Heart’ from a set of Nine Tagore Madrigals. Here, Rosner sets lines from Rabindranath Tagore’s poem The Gardener. The music sounds delightfully fresh, not least thanks to the rhythmic buoyancy. The piece is pleasingly madrigalian and presents an excellent contrast to the two larger compositions.

I’m unclear as to whether Arnold Rosner intended these two mass settings for liturgical use. Their length would make them suitable but I do wonder if any choir other than a professional choir comprised of expert singers could do them justice. Both scores clearly present formidable technical difficulties and I doubt that even the most accomplished cathedral or university college choir could justify the amount of rehearsal time that would be needed. The many technical challenges have been triumphantly surmounted by Hilary Campbell and Blossom Street in assured and committed performances. As I’ve indicated, Rosner’s contrapuntal writing is often very complex but it’s a tribute to the singers’ proficiency – and to Rosner’s compositional skill – that the music never sounds congested. I should also congratulate the choir on the clarity of their diction, something which can’t have been easy to achieve in music such as this.

The recorded sound is excellent. The quality of the singing would be in vain if the recording itself hadn’t provided clarity of texture. Suffice to say that engineer Adaq Khan has done a fine job. The documentation is very good, offering a useful introduction to music that will be unfamiliar to most people.

Though Convivium don’t explicitly claim these as recorded premieres I’m not aware that any of this music has been recorded before. I’m delighted that these impressive and accessible works have now made it onto disc; that should give them the wider currency they deserve. I count these masses are major discoveries and I congratulate Hilary Campbell and her singers on their enterprise and achievement. Perhaps in due course they will set down Missa Greensleeves. For now, though, I’m resolved to investigate more of the music of Arnold Rosner, starting with the Fifth Symphony.

John Quinn, MusicWeb International, 14th April, 2020

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