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Christopher ROUSE (b.1949)
Der gerettete Alberich (1997)
Rapture (2000)
Violin Concerto (1991)
Evelyn Glennie (percussion)
Cho-Liang Lin (violin) Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
Rec. Finlandia Hall, Helsinki, Nov 2001 (Concerto), June 2003 (Rapture); Sept 2003 (Alberich)
ONDINE ODE 1016-2 [64’03]

Perhaps, like me, you came to Rouse’s orchestral music through the excellent, now deleted Marin Alsop disc from RCA. This featured his Pulitzer Prize-winning Trombone Concerto and the barbaric, sub-Rite of Spring scherzo Gorgon. If you too have this disc you may be surprised by what you encounter on this new issue. All are premiere recordings, and the booklet writer, Laurie Shulman, admits that these reflect ‘changes in his evolving compositional persona’ over the last few years. While certain thumbprints remain, the first thing you may notice is the subordination of dissonance and rhythmic excitement to melody and diatonic harmony. This may be an oversimplification, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the explosive energy that characterised Gorgon. Rouse celebrated his formative years as a percussionist and had critics likening Gorgon to a classical equivalent of a Black Sabbath concert.

But composers do indeed change with the years. In Rouse’s case, maturity has brought a more reflective, less sombre feel to his music, as well as a welcome lightness. This is coupled with, as Shulman says, ‘more of the wink in the eye that his friends have long known’. This is most evident in the opening item Der gerettete Alberich, a concerto-fantasy for solo percussion and orchestra. Rouse admits to having certain misgivings about writing such a piece for his own ‘instrument’, until he came up with the novel idea of the soloist representing a specific character and making the work programmatic, or even semi-narrative. Thus we start with the closing bars of Götterdämmerung, where the only principal character left is the ‘greedy Alberich’. Rouse then goes on, in his own words, to ‘explore the idea of what happened to this character ... it’s tongue-in-cheek, but not making fun of Wagner – more a case of having fun with Wagner’. This takes the form of playing around with many of the leitmotifs from The Ring, and letting the excellent Evelyn Glennie have a whale of a time with a huge battery of instruments. The three movements reflect the character’s many moods as he looks back on a tragic life. The whole work is hugely enjoyable, not least because of the composer’s colourful orchestration. His treatment of Wagner’s motifs becomes ‘a metaphor for Alberich’s distortion of the Ring’s ‘Redemption through Love’ idea’. I particularly like the section that transforms the ‘Dawn’ motif into heavy metal. Alberich becomes a head-banging rock drummer – we’re back to Gorgon fleetingly here. A virtuoso cadenza caps the frenzy, with Alberich having the last word. Great fun.

Possibly the most uncharacteristic piece here is Rapture, mainly because we’re not used to hearing this composer write what is basically 12-minutes of blissful, even ecstatic C major. We’re in Rautavaara territory which, together with the large helpings of Sibelian landscape painting, is certainly a surprise from the composer of Gorgon and The Infernal Machine. Not that it’s unwelcome, but you do feel that you’ve heard this sort of thing many times before. I was also aware of a Wagnerian connection once again, where the woodwind fluttering and trilling over sustained strings sounded straight out of Siegfried’s ‘Forest Murmurs’ scene. It’s certainly evocative, but I doubt I shall return to it very often.

This is not true of the Violin Concerto, which I consider the strongest piece on the disc. The fact that the first two works were rich in allusion and quotation will prepare you for more of the same, though here the architecture is stronger and the interplay of soloist and orchestra more convincing. The work is in two main sections, entitled Barcarolle and Toccata. Rouse openly admits the influence of Bartók’s First Violin Concerto for this bi-partite layout. The opening is also redolent of Bartókian mystery, with the solo violin being joined by other principal strings, eventually forming a quartet within the orchestral tapestry that grows and interweaves. This evocative atmosphere is shattered by an orchestral outburst at 1’50 that signals one of the concerto’s binding motto themes. This is a distorted quote of the opening of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and it recurs at key points throughout the score. The rocking barcarolle figure then firmly takes over until an energetic allegro bursts in at 5’15 to add some welcome contrast. Things settle down again before a climactic build towards the Beethoven 4 motif, hammered out on full orchestra at 10’46 with an underlying three-note drum figure that echoes the Moonlight Sonata.

The second movement’s toccata structure echoes other American violin concertos, particularly Barber and Adams (though it is longer than either), and is a virtuosic roller-coaster for soloist and orchestra alike. This is tremendously thrilling writing (shades of the earlier Rouse) and I particularly like the brief but telling quote from the first movement of Beethoven 7 at 3’04, where the point is surely the famous reference to this music being ‘the apotheosis of the dance’.

Performances are all exemplary, and Ondine’s engineers give us superb sound. These Scandinavian companies really know how to record music! Excellent notes complete a very desirable issue.

Tony Haywood


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