When Charles Rosen died in 2012 (aged 85) the Guardian obituary-writer praised his extraordinary critical intelligence and perception, which enabled him to write such books as The Classical Style, as well as articles on art, poetry and food, but also felt that as a concert pianist “his performances (were) marred by a studied overemphasis and heavy, inflexible touch; though they could also be lucid and insightful”. So does this Sony Classical release (which ranges from Bach to Boulez) confirm the above impression or reveal Rosen as a neglected master-pianist?
Looking first at the composers you would expect Rosen to feel totally at ease with – Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – there is little to support the latter. In Mozart’s Rondo in A minor the theme is elegantly phrased, but then the playing becomes foursquare and there is virtually no tonal variation. Surprisingly his playing of late-Beethoven is one dimensional. There are two versions of the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata; in both the slow movement lacks timelessness, depth or spirituality and the fugal finale is a harsh-toned scramble with little sense of tension, line or progression (vital elements in a fugue). The first movement of Opus 111 is devoid of drama and the sublime ‘Arietta’ and its Variations pass for little; and yet his performances of three Haydn Sonatas are far more fluent and graceful, although in the Moderato first movement of Hob.XVI.44, for all of the dynamic nuances, there is once again a lack of tension.
There are discs devoted to Chopin, Schubert and Schumann, which contain some decidedly mediocre performances. For example in the F minor Ballade and C sharp minor Scherzo of Chopin, Rosen seems to lose concentration, the phrasing is wooden and the melodic line is often only hinted at. In Schubert’s D959 Sonata there is little sense of power in the first movement exposition (although the exposition repeat is in place), the development is no more than clean and crisp – indeed Rosen doesn’t sound that interested in Schubert’s sublime exploration of the two main themes – the slow movement’s spectral song doesn’t sing, the central section’s violent assault on tonality is curiously disjointed and underpowered, and much the same can be said of Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze and Carnaval.
Surprisingly then, the 1965 LP, entitled Virtuoso!, is very enjoyable (it has the subtitle “Electrifying Performances of the World’s Most Difficult Piano Showpieces”, on its magnificent dark red cover). Rosen was taught by the legendary Moriz Rosenthal (1862-1946) and his wife Hedwig Kanner, and here, more than in a short selection of Liszt pieces, and that composer’s and Chopin’s First Concertos (very badly conducted by John Pritchard), he seems to relax and simply enjoy playing the piano. There is rubato, tempo variant, rhythmic vitality and flexibility, and real bravura. Indeed, in Rachmaninov’s wonderful arrangement of the ‘Scherzo’ from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream music he runs the Russian giant’s own version pretty close. Yes, these qualities can be heard to a greater or lesser degree elsewhere on these discs, but here everything sounds natural and spontaneous.
When one moves to the early-20th-century the waters are similarly muddied. From 1963 we have Bartók’s marvellous Improvisations on Hungarian Folk Themes and Three Studies, which only really come alive halfway through; four years earlier Rosen had essayed Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit and Le tombeau de Couperin with decidedly uninspiring results. However a mixed Debussy recital and his complete Etudes are full of atmosphere and colour (although the received wisdom is that his earlier mono set is better still).
Rosen quite rightly had a reputation for championing new and/or ‘difficult’ music, and here he does – most of the time – become vibrant. There is a marvellous disc of Webern songs and chamber works, which features Heather Harper’s superb performances of the settings of Stefan Georg poems, where Rosen is a brilliant accompanist, who proves equally adept in the concise masterwork, Quartet for Violin, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone and Piano, and ends the recital with an incisive performance of Variations. In the early 1960s he brought out an LP which included Stravinsky’s avant-garde Movements for Piano and Orchestra and some of Schoenberg’s piano music that for some inexplicable reason is still thought of as challenging, so one can only guess at what the reaction was in 1961. Here the performances are totally idiomatic and stand comparison with Maurizio Pollini in the Schoenberg, and yet Stravinsky’s Serenade in A and Piano Sonata suffer from that recurring Rosen problem, a lack of grip and imagination.
That said, in three of Elliott Carter’s works and in the First and only two published movements of the Third Piano Sonata of Pierre Boulez, Rosen is on top form, presenting immensely powerful, compelling readings that have never been surpassed. It is also worth remembering just how adventurous CBS was being when these LPs were first released.
To bring us full-circle it seemed appropriate to turn to the earliest music in this collection, three discs featuring J. S. Bach. Here in two of the ‘Ricercar’ from the Musical Offering and the complete Art of Fugue (including two four-hand tracks where Rosen overdubbed himself) there is some very fine playing mixed in with an approach that is more mechanistic; but when you turn to the Goldberg Variations suddenly everything comes together. There is a sense of spirituality, calm and inner logic that all great Bach-playing should have. Rosen plays all the repeats, and his ornamentation is effective and discrete.
In terms of the recorded sound, inevitably there are big changes. The finest is on the Virtuoso disc, which has been reasonably well re-mastered when compared to a first-label British Columbia Epic LP (SAX 5267) in that much of the presence of the original has been retained and the overall balance hasn’t been recessed. CBS was not however noted for producing demonstration quality and when one listens to the Chopin and Schubert discs even the American first-label vinyls were thin-toned and lacking in dynamic range (the London-based recordings using EMI facilities are a little, but not significantly, better), and since digital transfers of stereo master-tapes nearly always degrade the sound, one is always conscious that what is emanating from the speakers is ersatz. Sony have derived these compressed 16bit compact discs from 24bit 96kHz masters and given that more and more companies are now offering high resolution downloads it is very regrettable that they have not made these available; after all, the better the sound, the better one’s appreciation of the music.
With regard to presentation, each of the discs comes housed in a reproduction of the original LP sleeve, which means one can appreciate the brilliance of many of the designs. Unfortunately it also means you can’t read the sleeve notes (most of which were written by Rosen) without a magnifying glass, and there do not seem to be any downloads available, which again is regrettable. The booklet contains details of the original matrix numbers, production team and dates, which is excellent. However the sleeve used for the Haydn is that of a 1970s’ British budget CBS Classics LP, rather than the original Vanguard (VCS 10131), the use of which would, presumably, have somewhat compromised the name of this box. Furthermore the three Bach LPs featured show the Odyssey label (which was mainly used for re-issues) but the booklet doesn’t mention that it was a box-set as opposed to single records.
So do these performances support misgivings? Well, regrettably the answer is yes. Despite being a renaissance man, Charles Rosen was an interesting, but other than in a small number of instances, never a great pianist. Nevertheless this box is worth acquiring for those performances that do catch fire, and others may respond very differently to Rosen’s style of playing.