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Christopher ROUSE (b.1949)
Trombone Concerto (1992) [29:48]
Gorgon (1984) [16:43]
Iscariot (1989) [14:18]
Joseph Alessi (trombone)
Colorado Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec.1997 (no other details) originally released on RCA Red Seal
PHOENIX PHCD 167 [60:34]

For those of us who are lovers of Christopher Rouse’s orchestral music, particularly his earlier scores, this is cause for celebration. This very well received disc was released in 1997, only to disappear pretty well straight away – so firstly a big thanks to Phoenix for the rescue job.

The pieces are all quintessential Rouse from this period in that they contain a lot of loud, brash, rhythmically visceral music, much of it indebted to seminal works such as The Rite of Spring and Birtwistle’s Earth Dances, as well as elements of pop and rock music. There is also much that is subtle, and the central work, the Trombone Concerto, has a good deal of these qualities. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its 150th anniversary, this Pulitzer Prize-winning piece is dedicated to the memory of Leonard Bernstein, who died in 1990 as Rouse had begun work on the score. It actually quotes in places from Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony and there are also allusions to Copland – who had also died later the same year – as well as Mahler and Shostakovich. It’s a deeply impressive work. The first movement’s main theme rises out of a rumbling, primordial depth before giving way to more lyrical material as the trombone stutters its way into the light. The scherzo has that rhythmic energy typical of Rouse, with the trombone and orchestra quite literally appearing to ‘laugh’ mockingly at each other (tr.2, 1:40) before we enter a finale employing a solemn, hymn-like phrase with powerful variations. The music descends at the end back to the depths whence it came, the full circle complete.

The performance is excellent, with the virtuosic and concentrated playing of Joseph Alessi and has real virtue. The Colorado Orchestra is stretched to its limits but is expertly guided by Marin Alsop, a name new to most of us over here at this time. This is not the first recording, and the formidable rival on BIS, with that champion of the modern trombone Christian Lindberg as soloist, has better sound. But Alsop and Alessi are easily as satisfying musically and the Phoenix disc has, for me, a better balance of works.

The pile-driving orchestral showpiece Gorgon stretches everyone even further, especially the engineers. Its battery of percussion will give your audio system a workout and I agree with liner writer Mark Swed that this piece is ‘an attempt to take Rouse’s attraction towards fast, loud and wild music to its terrifying ultimate’. It’s an incredible assault on the senses, imaginative and grimly compelling, and as Gramophone said at the time – play loud, or not at all!

Iscariot provides a welcome contrast, being more lightly scored and slower moving. The composer has spoken of this piece as ‘purging certain emotional memories from my system’ and its Ivesian string sonorities lend it a certain melancholic, reflective aura. It is dedicated to John Adams, who conducted the premiere, but does not seem influenced by that composer’s style, at least not to my ears. Again, it’s well played and the recording copes rather better with the sound-picture than Gorgon, which is cut at a slightly low level to cope with the enormous extremes.

This represents the ideal introduction to Rouse’s music and its return to the catalogue is very welcome.

Tony Haywood




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