Record Review: Kaleidoscope Sky - American Chamber Works by Arnold Rosner & Carson Cooman

This collection of chamber music by American composers Carson Cooman and the late Arnold Rosner spans almost 50 years, from Rosner’s Sonata No.2 written in 1972, to Cooman’s Kaleidoscope Sky composed in 2020. Yet despite the years between them, and the slightly more pertinent fact that they are different composers, the whole programme feels remarkably coherent, with each piece segueing seamlessly to the next. Even, to an extent, Rosner’s semi-serialist String Quartet No.6. This is, of course, almost as much a credit to the world class members of the London Piano Trio and the ever-exceptional recording standards of Adaq Khan, Michael Whight and Convivium Records as it is to the composers. 

 

On the other hand, one could also listen to the CD under the guise of a two part concert, beginning with Rosner, and followed by Cooman after an interval length of your choosing, which probably makes for a more logically structured article. 

 

Despite studying during the height of the serialist movement, Rosner (1945-2013) remained a harsh critic of the overly, and unnecessarily, restrictive compositional style for most of his musical career. So much so, in fact, that his large orchestral composition for his dissertation was rejected by the University of Buffalo, forcing him to give up on a doctorate in composition and instead focus on music theory. This lead Rosner to develop a unique style based on his personal values and opinions, but influenced heavily by the harmonic patterns in early Renaissance and Baroque works, combined with the orchestral colour and intensity of the Romantic composers. 

 

I found Rosner’s Sonata No.2 particularly fascinating to listen to, with the music providing a heartfelt and varied display of Rosner’s compositional skills. Opening with the light-hearted and subtly folky ‘Allegro grazioso’, I am immediately drawn right into the music, and with the intimate pairing of violin and piano with microphones close enough to hear the intake of breath before each phrase, almost into the recording venue as well. Modal inflections and the lilting arpeggios lend the piece a folky ambience, but the calculated and deliberate conversation between pianist and violinist marks this as a serious movement, questioning the musical status quo at the time. The second movement, marked ‘Passacaglia’, presents a stark tonal contrast to the previous movement, developing the original melody with Vaughan Williams-esque chromaticism in a darker, almost threatening manner. The music builds in intensity, with similarly Williams-ish parallel movement between violin and piano before descending back to the lower registers of the violin and letting the natural resonance of the instruments create a brooding sense of anticipation. The final movement, Allegro, introduces a, for want of a better word, funky syncopated theme that should feel out of place, but Rosner incorporates it so expertly that it feels completely natural. The use of fragmentation and semi-Klangfarbenmelodie towards the end lends the piece a minimalist tone, culminating in a dramatic coda that leaves the listener wanting more. 

 

It would be a discredit to Cooman to try to categorise him into just one musical role; as well as boasting a compositional catalog of hundreds of works from operas to hymns to solo works and having had over 300 works composed for him to perform, Cooman also writes articles and reviews for major publications, is a musical business consultant, and specialises in composer estates and archives. Educated at Harvard University and Carnegie Mellon University, Cooman has held multiple Composer in Residence positions as well as working with noted composers, poets and librettists. 

 

The newest piece in this collection, and the piece from which the album gets its name, Kaleidoscope Sky, was written in 2020 specifically for the London Piano Trio. Cooman explains in the CD notes that this piece is one of a number of pieces he has written that is inspired by the atmosphere of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. Through composed and continually developing over one 19 minute long movement, this fascinating work explores emotions, textures, and thematic material galore, taking the listener on an utterly captivating journey along the way. Opening with rising flourishes on violins and piano that are soon mimicked by the cello, the piece immediately conveys a sense of significance. A dissonant ostinato on piano brings the piece into a more ruminative section, followed by an exposed and suspenseful moment of plucked staccato strings, a contrast to the previous resonant bowed melodies. After a harsh, Mahler style attack on the strings, a beautiful conversational section begins between strings and piano with an almost fugal relationship between violin and cello. A gentle, pianissimo fermata on violin marks the middle of the piece, with the proficiency of the musician and quality of Convivium’s recording shining through in the subtle harmonics audible above the held note. Cooman then explores a variety of textures, with a particularly interesting moment at about 13:06 where the piano sustains an almost walking bass style quaver melody over which plucked strings gradually build in intensity. The original rising flourishes return in the final couple of minutes, this time developing into a homophonic semiquaver melody that changes the atmosphere completely. The piano then takes over the melody as strings introduce a fragmented motif, culminating in the original rushes revolving over and over until a vibrato pedal note on the strings brings the piece to a close. 

 

This collection of works by Cooman and Rosner has proven to be a beautiful and worthy addition to the sadly diminishing world of contemporary chamber music, providing an introspective and learned performance into which it is all too easy to be completely absorbed for an hour. 

 

The CD, MP3 and FLAC digital files are available from Convivium Records and Presto Classical, and all of us at Expressive Audio are looking forward to hearing Cooman’s work performed live by the London Piano Trio at the CD launch concert on Saturday 2nd April. 

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