John Rose is an English composer, born in 1928. Available information on the man is vestigial (the booklet isn’t very helpful) but suffice it to say that most of the works on this disc date from a creative reawakening in the 90s. Divine Art’s website avers that “John Rose writes music that embraces a postmodern freedom – allowing him to build tonal and memorable music often with a strong Neo-baroque sound, strongly inspired by Bach – although Shostakovich is another source of inspiration. This is not to limit his work, which is varied and rich, but emphasizes his distinctive linear style.” I’m not sure that I buy that bit about “postmodern-freedom”. To my ears, it sounds deeply conservative. There is a bit of an idée fixe about Shostakovich, though the music never for a moment sounds like a parody of the Russian. But it is more than just the use of the DSCH motif in several of the works. Having been gently chided in these pages for pointing out that the recent CD of David Bowerman (Fanfare 34:1) betrayed not a hint of the passing of the last hundred years, I will say Rose’s music is pretty much in the same category. But it’s an observation , not a criticism, let alone a complaint. All the works on this disc are substantial and repay careful listening. It’s just that they are safe: There’s no daring, no deep emotions of any sort, rather an earnestness which the composer gets away with because, I sense, there is also a good deal of integrity in the music. It is so tempting to criticize a piece of music for not being what it never set out to be (see my review of Adamo’s Little Women in this issue); yet surely it is reasonable to observe where a composer is clearly working within his (or her) comfort zone to the detriment of the possible experiences the listener might have had otherwise.

On the CD, the two quartets frame the group of piano works, of which the Essay on DSCH, op 7, is the earliest, dating from 1970. This is a substantial work described by the composer as a “variation of sonata form.” It is a frustration of the composer’s notes to this CD that they resolutely refuse to explain anything. It is like a writer describing a building by saying, “Here is a door, six feet away is a window; here is the upper floor: look at the bricks,” and so on. This is music about itself, occasionally breaking out into emotive dance-like sections, that are all too subsumed in the general rigor. And yet, it’s an enjoyable listen, something I did repeatedly for this review. The preludes and fugues are in two groups: a prelude and a fugue, then the other prelude and two fugues. They are dated 2001 and have a combined op. number of 20, which is clearly low for a composer then in his 70’s. The preludes function in a somewhat restricted emotional and descriptive ambit (in keeping with a model of the Shostakovich set, if indeed that was a model); the fugues are clear and interesting. In both works, Robert Melling surely delivers performances to do the music justice, and more.

The first quartet (1997) is full of DSCH – dangerous in one sense because it obviously courts comparisons with, say, Shostakovich’s Eighth. However, there is a robustness and a sense of forward moving in the thinking even if the compositional style lacks the energy and drive of, say, Robert Simpson’s. The four sections of the work run together satisfyingly and there is a real sense of drama. The Edinburgh Quartet turns in a committed performance, on top of the music, though occasionally sounding strained in the more strenuous passages. The second quartet (1999), a substantial work at 26 minutes, refers to the Beethoven op.135 Quartet as well as self-referencing the choral work Psalm XLII, which received its premiere during the quartet’s composition. I find it less inviting, though again, there is no gainsaying the assuredness of Rose’s compositional grasp. Again the movements proceed without a break, and here I must enter a gentle complaint: Each quartet is presented as a single track. It’s not just that that makes life harder for the reviewer; I see no reason that the listener shouldn’t be guided to the start of each section (or even subsection, as Marco Polo used to do for Havergal Brian’s symphonies). Apparently this was at the composer’s request. However I suggest that tracking and other presentation matters should be for the listener’s benefit, not the composer’s.

Listening to the disc all the way through, personally I find the transfer from the strings to piano acoustically awkward (as usual) and it isn’t helped here by the different venues employed. The string quartet sound is full, if very slightly boxy, but the piano sound is fine. As I have said, the performances are clearly committed and, if the composer pulls his punches, the music doesn’t, and is well worth investigating.

—Jeremy Marchant