CHRISTOPHER ROUSE: Odna Zhizn · Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 · Prospero's Rooms
09 February 2017
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Christopher Rouse, perhaps the reigning American symphonist, writes music with an immediate visceral and emotional punch. But unlike, say, his more approachable near-contemporary Michael Daugherty, he rarely offers us auditory comfort food: Rouse’s music may be direct, but it’s not easy, and it takes its toll, both intellectually and emotionally. That’s especially true of the works on this CD, offering the world premiere performances of three works commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, filled out with a first recording of a slightly earlier work (the Third Symphony) originally premiered in St. Louis.
Rouse’s slightly cryptic notes simultaneously inform and frustrate. He does explain that the Third Symphony is modeled on the Prokofiev Second, in turn modeled on Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 (Jay Reise’s Second Symphony is another possible point of orientation)—and while the work is far from a pastiche (Rouse’s voice is very much his own), knowledge of the work’s inspiration does help us make sense of the occasional bursts of Prokofieviana (say, the screaming trumpets at the beginning, the way the second movement’s first variation seems ready to turn into the Love for Three Oranges). Likewise, it’s helpful to know that Prospero’s Rooms is “an overture to an unwritten opera” based, not on Shakespeare’s Tempest, but on Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.”
But the clarifications are counterpointed against some aggressive teasing. In many of his works, Rouse tells us, he has “symbolically translated various words into notes and rhythms,” a technique that parallels those found in certain works by Messiaen (whose woodwind writing is echoed in parts of the Third), Berg, and Harris Lindenfeld. Odna Zhizn, an “homage to a person of Russian ancestry who is very dear” to Rouse, is especially dense in this regard—“each letter of the alphabet is assigned a pitch and (occasionally) a duration, and words will be spelled out musically according to the letters of those words.” The result is a “public portrayal of an extraordinary life as well as a private love letter.” But without the identification of the person and without the codebook, we’re left with a slight sense of frustration: It’s a bit like being told there’s a party we’re not invited to. The Fourth Symphony, similarly, has a “particular meaning”—but, he says, “I prefer to keep it to myself.”
After the disc was released, Rouse did come out with further explanation. Odna Zhizn is a portrait of his wife, Natasha, whom he recently married—and whose early life was scarred by sexual abuse and severe poverty; and the Third Symphony, besides being a tribute to Prokofiev, is a love letter to Natasha, too, utilizing the same kind of musical coding. Still, much remains obscure—especially the curious structure of the two-part Fourth, the celebratory first part upbeat, even jovial in a nearly tuneful neo-Coplandesque way, the second a bass-centered lament of unrelenting blackness with its origins in the darkest moments of Mahler and Wagner.
Still, despite the mysteries (or perhaps even, in part, because of them), this is an immensely rewarding album. Rouse’s virtuosic neo-Expressionist writing is eventful, rhythmically vital, boldly colored (he’s more apt to juxtapose sonorities than to find striking new ways to merge them), sometimes extremely violent, sometimes breathtaking in its beauty (the second variation in the Third’s second movement, for strings divided into 12 parts, may well summon up the Vaughan Williams of the Tallis Fantasia or the Tippett of the Corelli Fantasia). And except perhaps for the slightly over-melodramatic ending of Prospero’s Rooms (although, frankly, it’s no more obvious than the ending of the Poe story), the music is sure-footed throughout, with a fine sense of pacing that, even on first listening, keeps you engaged from first note to last.
The performances, in spots, have a slight stiffness that betrays the orchestra’s lack of familiarity with the scores, and balances are not always ideal (the brass often covers important string parts); but the extra electricity of being at a premiere more than compensates. The sound, though, is more of a problem. Much of this music has a low center of gravity (in particular, the Doloroso second part of the Fourth, where tuba and contrabass clarinet play crucial roles), and whatever else you can say about Avery Fisher Hall (as it was called when these recordings were made), you can hardly claim that it is bass friendly. There are also, here and there, some odd audio effects, like the artificial-sounding reverb at the end of the Third and Prospero’s Rooms. Still, these are solid representations of exceptional scores—and the disc is strongly recommended.