This is a generously timed and attractively presented CD. The booklet tells us that John Rose was born in London and emigrated to South Africa with his parents in 1940. Several of his compositions were performed there, before “a long creative hiatus” that lasted until he resumed composition in 1993. He has also worked in education and as a choral conductor. The booklet also provides useful information on the artists, as well as notes on the music by John Rose himself. These are short, pithy commentaries indicating, in the main, the motifs from which the music is constructed, and the interrelation between the works presented and others in his catalogue. This approach is much to be preferred to the impenetrable philosophical theses we sometimes encounter, and even more so to the trite, effusively personal confessions now becoming common, but even so, in his brevity, he does the listener few favours. In addition, he did not want the different sections of each of the string quartets banded separately, and whilst this undoubtedly preserves the integrity of each work – they are both played without a break – a CD is often used as a study tool, and would certainly be useful in this case, and presenting twenty-six minutes of closely argued music in a single flow is not the best way to initiate the listener.
The programme is made up of three piano works plus two string quartets. The earliest music on the disc is the Essay on DSCH . (There is a little confusion in the booklet notes, one of the essays suggesting that the work was composed after 1993.) There is nothing in the composer’s description to suggest that this is in any way a tribute to Shostakovich. Instead, it would appear that a motif from an earlier work struck him as similar to Shostakovich’s musical cipher, prompting the composition of this work. The piece is sonorous and gritty by turns, extremely well written for the piano in a style that will evoke Tippett in some listeners’ minds. There are moments of drama, and the piece closes with a lengthy, tranquil coda closing on a sonorous chord of A major. It is a compelling work to which one wants to return, but a certain emotional aridity will limit its attractiveness to some. This impression is confirmed in the first of the two sets of Preludes and Fugues for piano that share an opus number. Here, in spite of its clear and dramatic structure, the fugue does not quite succeed in leaving the world of the academia. The prelude, on the other hand, is based – as is the fugue – on a theme that stubbornly refuses to leave the mind once you’ve heard it, and it’s not every composer who achieves that! The second prelude is dark and heavy, with thick textures, the whole very serious and not a little oppressive. In this case the composer’s note allows the listener to follow the musical argument even at a first hearing. Once again I am put in mind of early and middle-period Tippett here, especially the fugal writing in some of that composer’s string quartets. The music is discursive and convincing, appealing perhaps more to the head than the heart. As for the performances, Robert Melling plays all three works with what appears to be total mastery and conviction. The composer will surely have been deeply satisfied and appreciative.
From its arresting opening to the lively, conclusive finish, the Quartet No. 1 confirms the impression of a composer of great seriousness, uninterested in surface glamour and who expects his listeners to work at the music. Robert Simpson was another in this vein, and I would add his name to the list of composers Rose’s music can evoke, as well as, for different reasons, those of Bartók, Tippett again, and even Hindemith, names I cite merely in the hope of giving some impression of what this fascinating music sounds like. The Quartet never sounds as though it were conceived for any other medium, but there are times, as indeed there are in the piano works, when one would welcome a little more variety of colour, and there is a stratospheric passage just before the halfway mark that, striking though it is, rather tires the ear. There is, if anything, even less contrast of texture and colour in the Second Quartet , and for once I feel the work contains a passage or two where the composer stretches his motifs further than they can really bear. But once again one is struck by the seriousness of intent here, consummate craftsmanship, and a result that leaves the listener eager to return and explore the work further. Both works receive fine performances from the Edinburgh Quartet, though listening without a score I suspect that there are one or two passages in the Second Quartet where the group is particularly stretched. These are also those passages where I feel the composer’s inspiration is flagging, in which case the two impressions may well be linked.
This is a fine disc of uncompromising music from a little known composer. I recommend it to all those who like to stray from the beaten track.