It has been heartening to watch the growing representation of Arnold Rosner’s music on disc. This marvellous American composer (1945-2013) first came to my attention through the series of recordings on Toccata Classics—most recently the magnificent choral-and-orchestral Requiem of 1973 (TOCC 0545) released in September—though there are a number of discs available now from Naxos and Albany as well, and one from MSR Classics. The two Masses for a cappella choir featured on this new disc from Convivium Records date from around the same time as the Requiem and if, by design, they do not match that work’s grandiloquent utterance, they are nonetheless fine settings informed by a considerable depth of feeling.
Rosner had a notable feeling for history, musical history not least, and as a composer was something of a Renaissance man. His three Masses in particular (only the second and third are featured here, the earliest, Missa Greensleeves of 1968, being omitted) not only revealed the medievalist in him but gave it free rein expressively, with a purity more acute than was appropriate in the Requiem. Rosner was aware of the fine Masses of the twentieth century, such as those by Vaughan Williams and Frank Martin in the 1920s, or Stravinsky’s in 1948, but his own look consciously further back to the soundworld of Palestrina and Victoria, not least in their use of a cantus firmus as the bedrock of the music, most obviously the famed late medieval tune L’homme armé (used by Dufay, Palestrina and many others). (It is doubtful whether Rosner was aware of Maxwell Davies’ parodistic use of the tune in his Missa super L’homme armé of 1968.)
Harmonically, however, both the Missa L’homme armé (1971) and Missa In nomine (1974—its jubilant close was partly a response to the United States’ exit from the Vietnam War) follow the free-tonal style typical of Rosner’s mature style. (And, it should be noted, somewhat out of step with the prevailing fashionable trends of the time.) The tension between the backward-looking yet thoroughly contemporary expression in these works make them sound modern still to our ears in the twenty-first century when other more faddish works of the 1960s and ‘70s seem dated. Certainly, in such committed performances from the Blossom Street Choir these wonderful works spring marvellously into life, the singing impeccably phrased, with superb intonation and ensemble, directed with assurance by Hilary Campbell. Convivium’s warm sound, recorded in the Church of St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, is very natural and clear. A very fine disc, indeed.