Symphony No.5 (2015)
Concerto for Orchestra (2008)
Nashville Symphony Orchestra
Giancarlo Guerrero (conductor)
Recorded at Laura Turner Concert Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, TN, USA on 5-8 October 2017 (Symphony No.5) or 11-13 April 2019 (other works)
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: August 2020
CD No: Naxos 8.559852
Duration: 71 minutes 32 seconds
Here are two world premiere recordings plus a third assumed to be ahead of the pack at the time of the concerts from which its taping derives. As is customary with this composer, all three works blend reassuringly accessible, sometimes deliberately second-hand gestures and harmonies with more disruptive provocations, whether rooted in Bergian modernism or patented below stairs. Rouse’s blasting, percussive tendency has its origins in the rock music he once taught, innovatively, at the Eastman School of Music, but his lost Edens usually recall the mid-century pastoral of a Piston or a Tippett. It still feels odd that he should have morphed into a defender of the high ground: “I’m not going to talk about rock and roll anymore. It doesn’t need my help. It’s not that I no longer like that music, but I feel the wagons have been circled, and I’m going to stick with my high-falutin’, élitist, dead white European male brethren and, if necessary, go down fighting.”
Arguably America’s greatest living ‘proper’ composer by the time of his death aged 70 last year, Christopher Rouse was unquestionably her finest symphonist. Like Nielsen and Martinů whose own goal-directed post-Beethovenian kinesis is recalled in the irrepressible opening movement of the Fifth, he completed six such works. Co-commissioned with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra who got to play it first under the direction of Jaap van Zweden, No.5 takes off with a raucous, curdled stab at the obvious four-note archetype before exploding every which way. Beethoven remains an obvious presence – there is recurring use of the connective passage that links the third and fourth movements of his Fifth – but this is not at all a Symphony for Classical Orchestra along the lines of Harold Shapero’s. Nor is it throwaway post-modern deconstruction like Jörg Widmann’s Con brio. The movements play without a break, the central quartiles proving harder to grasp on a first or second listen. The mainly elegiac slow movement is not structured in the manner of its ostensible model, instead intercut or ‘blurred with’ a friskier scherzo. And rather than a mysterious transition to a final blaze of Beethovenian affirmation we have brazen alarums and a drum break on timpani. After a short ride our destination is revealed as Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements! There seem to be joking references to Bruckner along the way but the only thing we can be sure of is that Rouse, like Oliver Knussen in his different way, assimilated more music than we will ever encounter.
The twelve-minute Supplica, placed second, is utterly different in mood and something of a surprise inclusion, Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony having recorded it for Pentatone as part of an earlier multi-composer release entitled “Aspects of America”. It seems neither Rouse nor Guerrero knew anything about that album and its longer-drawn version of Supplica. Less harmonically consonant than Rapture (2000), surely Rouse’s most ubiquitous score these days, Supplica is not far behind, a compassionate (conceivably autobiographical?) statement to haul us from the abyss of hollowed-out inertia into which the Fourth Symphony had lately toppled. Its music is frankly emotive, something regrettably rare in the concert music of our time. Hope and serenity are glimpsed and tentatively grasped by the close even as bigger questions lurk unanswered – a consciously Ivesian allusion. Some hear Mahler in this kind of string-based fare (brass and harp have a role too). I’d say the voicing of chords feels Nordic when not unashamedly cinematic, nudged from cliché into magic in a manner quintessentially Rouse’s own. The Nashville team make the argument less static than their rivals in a hall with the right kind of bloom.
Less instantly appealing and hence placed last in physical format, the Concerto for Orchestra was the first of these pieces to be composed. It presents any number of virtuosic challenges to the players, originally those of the Cabrillo Music Festival long associated with Marin Alsop to whom it is dedicated. Rekindling the embers of meaningful tonal discourse is less relevant here than carefully patterned showing off. Still Rouse demonstrates how chromatic writing can be moulded into something nearly melodic. There’s the expected riot of colour and rhythm with nods to past masters, most obviously Lutosławski though many more seem to be glimpsed. The final climax is characteristically frenzied. The composer suggests only that “this work is essentially ‘about’ allowing each player a chance to shine.” As throughout, the realisation comes across as first-class even if the scurrying string lines just occasionally lack the absolute security of their counterparts in Rouse’s Third and Fourth Symphonies as despatched by Alan Gilbert’s New York Philharmonic (Da Capo).If you don’t know this composer’s music, contemporary in the best sense however rarely programmed in the UK, I can only urge you to repair the omission. As someone once said, play loud or not at all.