Victor Carr Jr
January 30, 2003

Black Sounds, written for a ballet depicting the act of murder, is an unrelentingly intense work that packs a good deal of violence into its 17 minutes. George Rochberg thought of the piece as an “homage” to Varèse, and indeed with its stark, near-atonal language, repetitive phrases, and broad, colorful percussion array, it sounds a good deal like the French/American composer’s music, including its scoring for wind ensemble.

The archaic sounds of Cantio Sacra, a transcription of a set of organ variations by the Baroque composer Samuel Scheidt on the chorale tune Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz, come not only as a welcome balm after the previous work, but as the piece progresses prove to be a showcase for Rochberg’s considerable contrapuntal technique.

However, the most substantial and most compelling work on the disc is Phaedra (which admittedly has a far less catchy title than the top-billed Black Sounds). Rochberg set choice portions of Robert Lowell’s translation of Racine’s adaptation of Euripides’ Hippolytos, which tells of Phaedra’s illicit desire, unquenchable passion, and tragic death. The composer responded to the text’s vivid imagery with music of stunning rhythmic ferocity and unfettered emotional expression (employing a mix of tonal and atonal harmony). Mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger’s daring performance of this unusually challenging solo part (it calls for the singer to emit raw-throated screams amid the sung lines) chillingly communicates the frustration, fury, and eventual despair of the doomed Phaedra.

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project delivers stirring and virtuosic performances under Gil Rose, and although the recording has a somewhat hard acoustic edge (and Nessinger sounds unrealistically forward in the mix), in some ways this increases the music’s raw, visceral impact. A most interesting disc, and a finely varied introduction to Rochberg’s music.

--Victor Carr Jr