Christopher ROUSE (b. 1949)
String Chamber Works
String Quartet No. 1 (1982) [16:30]
String Quartet No. 2 (1988) [21:13]
Compline for string quartet, flute, clarinet and harp (1996) [18:37]
Calder Quartet (Benjamin Jacobson (violin); Andrew Bulbrook (violin); Jonathan Moerschel (viola); Eric Byers (cello)); Alicia Lee (clarinet); Sivan Magen (harp); Daniel Alexander (flute)
rec. 13-15 November 2007, Performing Arts Center, Theater C, Purchase, NY. DDD
E1 MUSIC KIC-CD-7752 [56:22]

The six movement First Quartet by Christopher Rouse was largely written in 1981 - the year of the Bartok centenary - and is what the composer calls a “conscious homage to that greatest of twentieth century quartet composers”. It includes two movements bearing the title “Fantasma di Bartok”. That said the work was also influenced by the violent death Anwar Sadat and the composer assures us that “the important pitch material of the work” is based on the initials of Sadat's name. It’s a work of serrated irritation, fractious, single-minded, angry, unafraid of dissonance and fracture yet often quiet. The final whispering Epilogo-Lento manages to be both moving and deeply troubled. It was written in Rochester, New York on 7 June 1982 for the Casella Quartet - in residence at the Eastman School with the Cleveland Quartet.

The String Quartet No. 2 was completed in his native Baltimore in 1988. It was commissioned by the Cleveland Quartet with funding from the Eastman School. Dedicated to the people of the Soviet Union which is not to be taken as “socio-political commentary in any way” (CR). It was written after a tour of the USSR in 1987 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The music, across three movements, is intensely tragic and has about it nothing of the haranguing platform or the glaring stage. The example of Shostakovich is certainly in the background here. The second movement takes us back to the gripping fractious dissonance of Rouse’s First Quartet with short shreds of lyrical tendrils here and there. The composer says that it “recalls my Symphony No. 1 (1986) in some regards. This is the result of a personal desire to communicate ultimately with listeners of all nationalities.” The First Symphony can be heard on First Edition and on Bis.

The final and most recent work on the disc is the four-segment Compline - presented across a single track. Scored for the same septet as Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro it was written for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center under the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress. The dedication is to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitsky. The “title refers to the seventh (and final) canonical hour in the Catholic church. As a result, some may conclude that it is a religious work. However, what religiosity Compline may contain is more observational than participatory, reminiscent perhaps of various scores by Respighi in which religious elements are included” (CR). The composer sees this works as a souvenir of his 1989 trip to Rome, “a city I fell in love with instantly and that is, of course, dominated by the twin cultures of the ancient Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic church … the sound of bells is never far away.” The music is not lush. Across a schema of connected fast-slow-fast-slow sections the strings provide a rocking minimalist motoric ostinato while the wind instruments dive and soar. Next comes a very slow idyllic-impressionist Reverenza. The ensuing fast section is returns to that fast-rocking incessant ostinato with the woodwind all fluttering and scurrying birdsong. This curves down a steadily stilling gradient into a peaceful place of Ravelian impressionism, Silvestrov-style diaphony and plainchant.

The Calder who also work with Terry Riley are sympathetic collaborators in this project which adds indispensably to the Rouse discography.

I quite liked the design but can only condemn the dense Dave Muller spider-web that makes most of Rouse’s own programme note for the First Quartet quite illegible. The quartet is dealt with well in the general note so no doubt I am missing some edgy metaphor when I take such grave exception to this piece of baleful innovation.

Rouse continues to carve out his own distinctive world separate from cliques and style groups.
Rob Barnett

Rouse reviewed on MusicWeb International
Violin Concerto etc on Ondine
Trombone Concerto etc on Phoenix
Second Symphony on Telarc
First Symphony on Bis