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Christopher ROUSE (b. 1949)
Iscariot (1989) [15:20]
Clarinet Concerto (2001) [19:14]
Symphony No.1 (1986) [26:44]
Martin Fröst (clarinet)
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Alan Gilbert
rec. Stockholm Concert Hall, January 2005 (Iscariot, Clarinet Concerto) and March 2006 (Symphony No.1). DDD
BIS BISCD1386 [62:35]
Experience Classicsonline

Dedicated to John Adams who conducted its first performance, Iscariot is a short work scored for chamber orchestra. It is structured as a series of strophes mainly for strings. These are contrasted with antistrophes for woodwind, brass and percussion “always with the celesta nearby playing music derived from the chorale Es ist genug that will eventually be stated in a recognisable fashion at the end of the piece”. The piece opens with a massive bass drum stroke followed by slow-moving, cluster-like progressions in the strings that may bring Ives’ The Unanswered Question to mind. The music then unfolds in a succession of strophes and antistrophes before reaching its unresolved ending. It is a rather enigmatic piece described by the composer as his most privately autobiographical piece without – tantalisingly enough – offering any clue. “Let each listener make of Iscariot what he or she may!”
The somewhat more recent Clarinet Concerto dedicated to Augusta Read Thomas is a completely different work. It is cast in one movement, falling into several contrasting sections. It opens with a forceful call to arms in the brass. The clarinet enters with some florid, capricious gestures. It then turns to embrace more melodic material but never unequivocally; it was the composer’s wish to write “a rather prickly work”, in elements of chance and unpredictability were present. The composer explains that he even chose to roll a pair of dice every twelve bars. If he rolled two sixes, he would at that point introduce a slapstick stroke that would usher in a small three-movement ‘micro-concerto’ of more tonal harmony. Such playing with numerology, however, must not be carried too far. Thus the music unfolds in a kaleidoscopic manner alternating in the clarinet part the warmly melodic with the fancifully skittish material. In the background the orchestra groans or erupts without any apparent logic. A referee whistle brings the abrupt close. Rouse’s Clarinet Concerto is a highly virtuosic piece calling for immaculate technique and committed musicality. Martin Fröst meets both requirements seemingly without effort.
The Symphony No.1, dedicated to John Harbison, is undoubtedly the most substantial work in this most welcome composer’s portrait. Unlike other music by Rouse at that time, the music moves at a relatively slow pace throughout. This adds considerably to the dark-hued character of much of the thematic material. Though in one huge single span, this work falls into four distinct sections played without a break. The music alludes to the Adagio of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, albeit “turned upside down, played backwards and in other ways corrupted in an attempt to say ‘no’, symbolically, to the heroic ideal of the nineteenth century”. The extended introduction leads into the Allegro section, the tempo of which nevertheless remains slow. The impression of speeding-up is suggested by an increase of dynamics rather than by a real increase of tempo. This builds to a mighty climax violently hammered out. There follows a long slow section “more diatonic in harmony and consoling in mood”. This hard-won peace is brutally disrupted by a brief dissonant orchestral shriek. Some soft music ensues in an attempt to restore the contemplative mood of the slow section, thus ushering in the long elegiac coda. There is something of Allan Pettersson’s grief-stricken symphonies here. The work ends in utter darkness, unresolved, unappeased. Like Iscariot, the First Symphony is a strongly personal statement from a composer whose music is often triggered by emotional stimuli rather than by purely formal calculations. I have always felt – and still do – that Christopher Rouse is first and foremost an intuitive. His often violent, let alone aggressive but always strongly expressive music often reflects our brutish times in much the same way as a humanist attempts to introduce consolation or reason for hope.
This is a splendid release and a most welcome addition to Rouse’s growing discography.
Hubert Culot


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