Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded January 2005 (Iscariot & Clarinet Concerto) & March 2006 in Stockholm Concert Hall, Sweden
CD No: BIS BIS-CD-1386 Duration: 63 minutes Reviewed: November 2008
Christopher Rouse – Iscariot … Clarinet Concerto … Symphony No.1
Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
This is the second recording of Christopher Rouse’s Iscariot, a tautly structured, 15-minute tone-picture composed in 1989 for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and dedicated to John Adams.
Those facts tell only a small part of the story, for this predominantly slow work strikes out in a very different direction to the music of its dedicatee, using as its base five expansively scored ‘strophes’, belying its chamber orchestra origins.
Marin Alsop ensured Iscariot received the strongest possible advocacy as part of a revelatory Rouse disc for RCA in 1997, the first to fully feature the work of the composer. More than a decade on, Alan Gilbert confirms it as a work that has aged extremely well and is helped with a sumptuous BIS recording.
Rouse (born 1949) talks of Iscariot as a piece of profound meaning, yet exercising his composer’s prerogative he chooses to keep that close to his heart. Gilbert gives a performance of absolute conviction, the ecstatic quote of “Es is genug” rising slowly to form the apex of the piece, the orchestral sonorities crystal clear.
In many ways the Clarinet Concerto (written for Larry Combs of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) is Iscariot’s polar opposite, being predominantly faster and written to a loose programme of pre-determined events, all with reference to the number 12. Rather than employ this in a Schoenbergian fashion, Rouse seems to be having a good-natured poke at the composer and the Second Viennese School’s compositional methods. Yet his writing does at times elude tonality, and in setting seemingly random challenges, determined by a throw of the dice, the placing of events and their outcomes intentionally draws comparison with a board game or television-game-show.
When he threw the first ‘12’ with the dice, Rouse determined he would insert a three-movement ‘micro concerto’. When that happens little more than halfway through, its classical lines are noticeably cleaner, shorn of the energetic trading of riffs employed earlier. Martin Fröst finds a scorching athleticism in the faster music, yet his briefly expressive slow line of the micro-concerto’s second part is most affecting, drawing parallels with Debussy’s Premier Rapsodie.
Fröst’s tone is a continual source of wonder, the engineers placing him up-front so that he can be heard above the expanse of orchestral colour, without giving the clarinet too much of a spotlight. Meanwhile Gilbert’s accompaniment is strongly responsive, the mesh of strings brought together to accompany an energetic solo nearly halfway through particularly impressive and detailed.
As a piece designed by the composer to “jump to a completely different limb on the musical tree”, the concerto fulfils its function, and Rouse’s booklet note helps place the piece in effective context.
Symphony No.1 is a relatively early work, from 1986, predating the Clarinet Concerto by 15 years, and provides a further example of the composer’s ability to retain lyrical intensity through slowly shifting music, his most effective method of writing. In a slowly evolving single movement, the central ostinato of the symphony brings a barely concealed power, along the lines of ‘Mars’ from Holst’s The Planets, though here the imaginary hero suffers defeat at the climax.
The vivid, intentional Brucknerian references are expansive yet concentrated, the wide-open textures betraying the touch of an American hand, while the harmonic and melodic writing suggests a close familiarity with 19th-century Austro-German styles, in this case the Bruckner of the Seventh Symphony. Gilbert unites these elements into a coherent whole, showing particular care as the symphony enters its final elegiac pages, the hero spent.
This offering from BIS therefore joins a small yet highly regarded Christopher Rouse discography, adding to the successes of Alsop and Christoph Eschenbach, whose Telarc disc contains the Second Symphony. The importance of Rouse to contemporary American music should not be underestimated, for he writes orchestral scores that deeply moves the soul.