Sometimes keen expectation can be dashed, while on other occasions it is exceeded. This exceptional Dacapo release has me searching for superlatives. I have heard a lot of Christopher Rouse’s music and mostly been thrilled by the composer’s power and passion and his extremes of expression and dynamics.
To have four first recordings is stimulating indeed – one might say rousing – and all the music here is astonishingly well-played as well as superbly recorded, taken from concerts, applause removed. Rouse (born 1949 in Baltimore) was the New York Philharmonic’s Composer-in-Residence from 2012 until last year, and he has found in Alan Gilbert a vibrant and committed interpreter.
The wild trumpet calls that begin Symphony No.3 (2011) immediately hurl the listener to Prokofiev’s Second as a signpost; so it is gratifying to then read that Rouse has chosen the same two-movement design, culminating in a Theme that returns following five Variations – Prokofiev has six, Beethoven, in his also-two-movement Opus 111 Piano Sonata (which Rouse additionally cites), opts for four. The opening Allegro of Rouse 3 is just tremendous, a huge outpouring of energy and impact, or “savage and aggressive” to quote the composer, and in musical terms he has “transferred” a snippet of the Prokofiev into his own first movement. It’s electrifying and scored with dazzling brilliance. The second movement covers a lot of stylistic ground, from tenderly beautiful, intensely glowing and deft to – again borrowing from the composer – “bacchanalian abandon” and, the strident final dissonances suggest, catastrophe. What a stunner!
Symphony No.4 (2013) is mesmerising in a wholly different way. Once again there are two movements, one folding into the other. The first, ‘Felice’, dances with joy and with Baroque countenance (and a familiar tune?) and reminds of the Michael Tippett of the Corelli Fantasia and, inspired by Vivaldi, Symphony No.2; masterpieces both. Not for the first time in Rouse’s output I also find kinship to his American forbear, William Schuman. Rouse’s music here is rhythmically vital, stimulating and vividly communicative before calming into the lamenting Finale, ‘Doloroso’, which is emotionally burdened and often disturbing and darkly tinted, rather Shostakovichian or even Wagnerian (think ‘Siegfried’s Funeral Music’). The composer is secretive about what lies behind this music, there is something, but we will have to “guess”.
The Symphonies are bookended by short(er) pieces. Odna Zhizn (A Life, 2008) pays homage to an unnamed “person of Russian ancestry who is very dear to me” and is dedicated “For Natasha”. Letters of the alphabet (I assume spelling the individual’s name) are assigned specific pitches and durations. This “private love letter”, opening with a percussion flourish, suggests numbed loss (of Siberian coldness) before anguished outbursts of soul-baring take hold. It’s a challenging piece to come to terms with, and I was glad of some sort of transfiguration shortly before the end.
Prospero’s Rooms (2012, “an overture to an unwritten opera”) has Poe and Andreyev stories in its fiery belly, respectively The Masque of the Red Death and The Black Maskers. It begins in the depths and becomes a deft scherzo-like movement depicting the differently coloured rooms Prospero has as sanctuary for his friends; but the Red Death claims them anyway, as the terror-stricken coda makes clear.
So, a fantastic issue of great music, consummately performed. Rouse is writing a Fifth Symphony for Dallas. I can’t wait! Could Dacapo now give us Rouse's Requiem?