CHRISTOPHER ROUSE Odna Zhizn · Symfoni nr. 3 & 4 · Prospero's Rooms
16 May 2016
It is a general reconsideration of Dvořák’s symphonic output that is leading more conductors to program symphonies other than his final three. But there are other forms of reconsideration in music today as well, such as Christopher Rouse’s reexamination of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2 in his own Symphony No. 3 of 2011. This is a reconsideration of a reconsideration, since Prokofiev based his work on Beethoven’s final piano sonata, No. 32. Prokofiev’s symphony is not often heard it is a product of the experimentalism of Paris in the 1920s, and its largely unremitting intensity can be off-putting but Rouse’s Third, after its explosive brass opening mirroring Prokofiev’s, goes off in directions more reflective of Rouse’s own style. The overall impression of Rouse’s symphony is one of hyperactivity: the work generally moves quickly, and the first variation of the second movement, which is in effect a scherzo, is the most intense of all. The juxtaposition of intense dissonance with expressiveness in that second movement, which like Prokofiev’s is a set of variations, is so extreme as to be difficult to hear at times, but it is certainly effective and the work, which gets its world première recording on a new Dacapo CD, is very well played by the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert.
The three other works here are also world première recordings, all three of them having been commissioned by this orchestra while Rouse (born 1949) was its composer-in-residence. Symphony No. 4, less striking and easier to listen to than No. 3, includes some quotations from other composers’ works, for reasons that are not clear from the music itself; yet this symphony has none of the balanced uncertainty or stylistic peculiarity of others filled with or built around quotations, such as Shostakovich’s No. 15. Also on this CD are the tone poems Odna Zhizn (2008) and Prospero’s Rooms (2012). The former, whose title means “A Life” in Russian, has enough turbulence and turmoil to make it seem that the life in question was a difficult one, although the music’s quiet, peaceful conclusion suggests that it ended well. The latter tone poem is the shortest work on this disc and in many ways the most effective.
Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s thoroughly creepy The Masque of the Red Death, in which Prince Prospero locks himself and his hangers-on into a palace of differently colored and decorated rooms in the doomed hope of escaping a plague, Rouse’s work is highly evocative of its source and musically involving enough to be actually chilling. This recording offers a lot of Rouse’s music and will be of most interest to those already familiar with the composer; Prospero’s Rooms might well make those who do not know Rouse’s work seek out other pieces by him.