CD Review: “ONE – chamber music of Kurt Rohde” – MusicWeb International
by Dominy Clements
The description on the Innova website sums this release up as the place “where visceral music artfully meets the insightful.” This is San Francisco-based composer and violinist Kurt Rohde’s debut CD on the Innova label, and from the start gives the impression of well-written music, played with verve and skilled commitment.
The Concertino is a central work in the programme, performed by Axel Strauss who commissioned the piece, and the ensemble Rohde founded, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble. A brief look at Rohde’s scores shows the attention to detail he gives to notation, and this clarity of communication is a quality which transfers into transparency of instrumental colour and sonority. The solo part of the Concertino is virtuoso without being overbearingly showy or extrovert, and the equal partnership formed by the nervously active accompaniment from the ensemble in the opening moto movement creates an impression of dynamism and irrepressible energy. The Baroque concerto grosso form is cited as a starting point for this piece, but other than a Schnittke-like connection with old and new worlds I doubt a blind listening would have given rise to this association in my mind, with the soloist clearly defined rather than there being a soloistic group amidst larger forces. The middle sotto movement is a beautifully sustained and ultimately quite dramatic arch around a middle C related to the Bach solo violin sonata in the same key, the final rotto or ‘broken’ movement is full of driving ostinato rhythms and tonal surprises, the double-stopping of the violin at times taking us into folk-dance territory.
The title track ONE uses texts from Jakob Stein, printed in the booklet, which are uttered in various ways by the performer, in this case pianist Genevieve Feiwen Lee. This sort of thing has its own lineage, and if pressed to describe the general impression I would invoke the names of John Cage for the prepared piano sounds, and perhaps a very soft-edged Frederic Rzewski for the relationship between voice and piano. One is pretty far removed from the sprechtstimme of Schoenberg and entertainments of Walton’s Facade, and while the piano writing and vocal delivery can be emphatic and dramatic there is more that is attractive about this piece than aversive. The voice and piano join hands rhythmically at times – drama to contrast with intimate moments elsewhere in which the piano creates atmospheric spells to provide a special aura for the words.
Double Trouble is a veritable “tour de force” which brings us back somewhere near to the tumult and dynamic momentum to be found in the Concertino. This is not to say that there are no lyrical passages, but quieter moments are never far away from pointillist plucked strings or nervously interjecting accents. Two solo violas form the focus point, with Kurt Rohde proving his chops in one of these parts. As with the Concertino there is plenty of air between the instrumental sonorities, creating an impression of technical good health and artistic logic. If you only sample one track from this CD then make it the third movement of this piece, which is a standard bearer for Rohde’s restless explorations in harmony and counterpoint and ‘never a dull moment’ intensity, with opposing tensions and a vivacious sense of imagination.
The final piece, Four Remixes, takes pop songs from Rohde’s youth and “reframes them through the lens of [his] memory.” Often powerful music in its own right, you might be forgiven for not always being able to recognise The B52s, The Beatles, Elton John and Joni Mitchell in this piece. The addition of external starting points does however deliver extra dimensions to what we have already heard, as well as creating some intriguing quasi-arranged moments which perhaps expose more sentimental and jazzy sides to Kurt Rohde. The piano sounds as if it could do with a tune in a couple of the upper notes, but this also adds to the bar-room qualities in Rohde’s treatment of ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’.
Well recorded, superbly performed and with substantial booklet notes, this is a fine addition to the innova catalogue, and a programme which meets all of the promises announced by its publishers.