The Complete Columbia and Epic Album Collection (Sony Classical)
“Intellectual” has often been a censure when describing music; lucky for us, pianist and writer Charles Rosen could not have cared less. Listen to the 10th variation, the “Fughetta,” on his 1969 recording of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”: Rosen never plays the melodic subject the same way twice, searching for different relationships between the notes, different rhythmic weights. His intellect is in constant motion, pulling us along in an ongoing investigation of musical implication.
Rosen, who died in 2012, recorded 21 albums for the Epic and Columbia labels between 1959 and 1972, all collected and remastered here (along with the original slipcovers, reproduced at CD size, allowing one — with the possible aid of magnification — to read Rosen’s erudite liner notes). The breadth is astonishing: Schubert and Schoenberg, Beethoven and Boulez, all of it lightly etched with Rosen’s sharp personality.
An album of old-fashioned Romantic show-off transcriptions and arrangements (not to mention a selection of provocations by Franz Liszt) displays Rosen’s athletic technique. The poetry of Ravel and Debussy acquires a fine-grained, literary clarity. Rosen’s Chopin is elegant but insistently, unsentimentally probing. He navigates Elliott Carter’s complexity (the Piano Sonata and two recordings of the epochal Double Concerto) with precision, while finding, in every phrase, a color or touch conjuring a connection with some past tradition.
Through it all, Rosen unfailingly hones in on that place where musical ingenuity and expression become inseparable, where the engineering becomes indistinguishable from the sublime. All music should be so intellectual.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.