CD Review: “ONE – chamber music of Kurt Rohde” – Audiophile Audition
by Darren Robinson
Kurt Rohde is a violist and a self-taught composer currently residing in San Francisco and the recipient of a number of fellowships and awards. This is Rohde’s debut CD on Innova, featuring his works performed by Axel Strauss, Genevieve Feiwen Lee, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, and the Empyrean Ensemble.
Concertino for Violin and Small Ensemble is a modern take on an old form; Rohde bases the work on the old “concerto grosso” style, but uses his own modern musical vocabulary. The first movement hints of Stravinsky’s’ Le Sacre du printemps, some influences from the second Viennese’s school, and I even thought I heard a little Philip Glass. The first movement (moto) is the second longest on the CD next to the second movement (sotto), but seems shorter because it is broken up into two sections. The second movement, the longest cut on the disk, starts slow and low. In dramatic contrast to the first movement, the violin is using double stops and the melody is more lyrical and almost tonal like. Rohde also switches from the violin’s high range to using the lower range, gives the movement a feeling of warmth compared to the crystalline first moment, which reappears later on in the movement. The third movement (rotto), in the tradition of concertos is a fast flying affair. While the melody returns to the more frantic feeling of the first movement, the third has a sense of playfulness as the style is borrowing a page from the violin’s fiddling tradition.
Double Trouble for Two Violas, a three-movement work featuring names like “Obsessive Compulsive” and “Spazoid,” uses the same soundscapes as the earlier Concertino for Violin. While this piece also has a high degree of technical and virtuosic writing, it did not intrigue me as much as the “Concertino” did. One of those factors could be the greater emphasis on the viola duet and the sparser accompaniment, which is less prominent than in the other work.
ONE for speaking pianist on texts of Jakob Stein: These poems are about “…Judaism and the nature of being”, and the fifteen poems that are used are broken into three unequal parts. The poems themselves are short and sparse, well-suited to Rohde’s treatment of them; there is a haunting quality to this work. The performance by the pianist/speaker was well executed; however I found the declamatory and measured performance of the poems not exactly what I wanted to hear. That is just my preference; I was expecting a more naturalistic and relaxed delivery, but that is a personal taste and does not reflect on the quality of Ms. Lee’s performance nor Rohde’s artistic decision. [No need to apologize, some of us run from any piece that says “speaker” in the title—myself for one.] Again, what I found extremely interesting about this work was the use of the prepared piano accompaniment. If you are not aware, prepared piano is when the piano is physically manipulated to produce different sounds. One of the ways this can be done is by putting different objects in the piano: putting a metal chain across some of the piano strings or using an eraser to mute particular ones.
Four Remixes for Piano Trio: This was my favorite piece on the CD. On this piece Rohde takes four pop songs Joni Mitchell’s Night Ride Home, the B52’s Funplex, Elton John’s Rocket Man, and the Beatles’s Maxwell’s Silver Hammer reworks them into something different, and pulls it off. These are a far cry from those “Hooked on” albums or muzak renditions. These pieces are well arranged and blend both the kernel of the original songs with Rohde’s voice to create something familiar but new. Each movement is crafted to it unique and individual self. They range from ethereal and nocturnal soundscapes to cold and angular rhythms with hectic, accompaniment figures, to the most tonal, and warm sounding works on the CD. I especially like Looped Trip based on Elton John’s Rocket Man, which is stunningly beautiful. Again it is Rohde’s wonderful use of sound in all of the movements that grabbed my ear and imagination.
I found this to be a very interesting but very challenging CD to listen to. Rohde’s composition style uses aggressive rhythms; it is highly dissonant with disjunct and abrupt melodies. A listener looking for lush melodies and a secure grip on a tonality might not like most of this recording. This music is cold and crisp as a glacier morning, with a few exceptions found in one or two movements. I know it’s in a style I don’t always want to listen to, but I do enjoy it in the right quantity and quality. This is what Mr. Rohde has delivered; it is a challenge to listen to, but it doesn’t threat or overwhelm due to the duration of the movements. What really won me over on this CD were Rohde’s writing and the sounds he invokes. The inclusion and use of the different strings, wind, the wide variety of percussion instruments and the prepared piano; was for me the highlight of the listening.