CHRISTOPHER ROUSE Odna Zhizn · Symfoni nr. 3 & 4 · Prospero's Rooms
10 October 2016
Christopher Rouse is one of the very few composers active today who can write music in large forms with the kind of expressive immediacy and emotional integrity of the great classical composers. I don’t say this lightly, but the evidence is plain and liberally scattered throughout the works on this disc. From 2012-15, Rouse was composer in residence with the New York Philharmonic, and all four of these performances were recorded in concert with that orchestra under Music Director Alan Gilbert. Dates of composition range from 2008 to 2013, and the works themselves comprise two tone poems and two symphonies.
Odna Zhian (A Life) and Prospero’s Rooms (after Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”) are typical of Rouse’s approach to “program music” in that the titles stimulate listeners to bring their own imagination to the act of listening, while the music’s color, drive, and formal shape speaks for themselves. Rouses harmonic and gestural style, ranging from tonal, to atonal, to avantgarde sound effects is completely organic and effortlessly integrated. It never sounds like a patchwork or collage, while his scoring, even at its most novel, remains idiomatically expressive, tactile in its immediacy.
Symphony No. 3 takes as its model Prokofiev’s gritty Second Symphony, which in turn is based on the structure of Beethoven’s last piano sonata. Both symphonies start with aggressive opening movements followed by variation finales. Rouse’s opening mirrors Prokofiev’s but then goes off on its own (sound clips [Prokofiev: Symphony No. 2 (i) Järvi (Chandos), Rouse: Symphony No. 3 (i)]); the two finales also begin similarly, but again, Rouse’s work never copies directly. Perhaps the third variation, with its gawky writing for winds and bass drum offers an affectionate nod in the direction of the Russian composer. It’s a very enjoyable work.
The Fourth Symphony starts with a bang and ends with a whimper, its two movements offering a schizoid opposition of moods, from giddy to gloomy. Such is Rouse’s conviction that I am generally willing to go wherever he wishes to lead, but I couldn’t help but think here that the piece is somehow incomplete. It doesn’t have to end happily, of course, but the way the “Doloroso” second movement peters out left me wanting to hear the end of the story. You may well feel differently.
The performances are brilliantly played and very vividly recorded before a not always ideally quiet audience. There are also some performance noises - page turns and the like - that are more audible than they ought to be, but in all other respects Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic offer nothing to quibble about. This is, in all respects, an important disc of music by a very major composer.