One quote from Spanish composer Jesús Rueda says more
about his Symphony No. 3 than the rest of my review can:
“I must admit, I like large orchestral forces, a sort
of orgy of sound with multiple lines at play together; I’m
attracted by dense and dazzling textures filled with colour
and dynamism, rhythmic proliferations, and sound limits that
lead to the edge of the abyss.”
One can get a good idea about whether or not Rueda is likely
to appeal from that statement. Perhaps I can elaborate a little
more by saying that Rueda is something like a European cousin
to American composer John Adams: a post-minimalist composer
of tonal music, though extended tonalities and free use of dissonance
for expressive purposes are strongly present. Or one could say
that Rueda stands in relation to Philip Glass-style minimalism
as Richard Strauss stood to Mendelssohn’s romanticism.
In both cases the latter composer took the basic style and exponentially
increased all its elements, in every direction.
Rueda’s Symphony No. 3 is subtitled “Luz”
(“Light”), not so much as a focus but rather as
a catalyst. The first four movements freely depict the traditional
four elements, but Rueda evokes how light interacts with them.
The first movement, “El fuego” (“Fire”),
starts with massive mounds of brass chords, with strings and
glockenspiel furiously flickering in sparks. Lest that sound
like a description of Wagner’s “Magic Fire Music”
from The Ring, rest assured that Rueda’s canvas
is so visceral that Wagner’s depiction seems quaint, almost
dainty in comparison. And even John Adams rarely approaches
the layered density Rueda explores.
In the second movement, “El agua” (“Water”),
the tempo slightly relaxes, though remaining quick, and diatonic
melodic strands show up, though in a very pointillistic, glistening
orchestral garb. The sense of light playing on constantly changing
watery surfaces is ever-present, like a modern day descendant
of Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, yet
the composer’s layering means that there are also ominous
happenings down in the depths, giving this music more than just
dazzling surface allure. The movement is a set of variations
ending with an astonishing passage for a brace of wood blocks
and timpani glissandos, sounding for all the world like a shower
of water droplets in a cave.
“La tierra” (“Earth”) takes off with
fast, motoric patterns in the strings. The precision demanded
here by the composer is extreme, and the strings of the Asturias
Symphony may have a few ragged edges, but what is far more important
is that conductor Maximiano Valdés declines to slow down
and play it safe. This performance takes risks, thus capturing
the edgy feel Rueda requires. After reaching a glittering peak,
the movement avalanches with long, slow trombone glissandos
and even a siren (shades of Varèse!) into the calm of
the fourth movement, “El aire” (“Air”).
This is the first slow movement thus far in the work, mercifully
offering some respite from the frenetic activity of the first
three movements before building to its own exultant peak.
The play of light on the elements help point where this symphony
is going, namely, “Hacia la luz” (“Toward
the light”). Played continuous like the other movements,
this finale opens with a sudden dizzying sense of space, with
woodwinds offering keening, birdlike cries over an abyss. Slowly
but surely, we begin to fall through layers of atmosphere with
strange, colorful densities, until the exhilarating music pushes
back up to a vertiginous climax, dissolving into a quiet resolution
of string harmonics at the end. Truly a pulse-pounding voyage
from Rueda, and one that deserves to be heard worldwide.
The makeweight for this still rather short disc is Rueda’s
earlier Viaje imaginario (“Imaginary Voyage”),
subtitled ‘Francisco Guerrero in memoriam,’ in honor
of Rueda’s teacher. Rueda wrote the somber piece in 1998,
almost ten years before finishing the symphony. For all its
evident craft and sincerity, this Rueda voyage comes across
as generic modernism when compared with the startling originality
of the symphony. Perhaps a better filler would have been for
someone to orchestrate Scriabin’s obsessive piano tone
poem Vers la flamme (“Toward the Flame”),
which would fit nicely on a program with this symphony.
The Asturias Symphony’s brass can have a few intonational
strains, and the strings can get a shade wiry in places, but
in music of such rude vitality, silky refinement would sound
ludicrous. This impression of rough edges also comes in part
from the detail disclosed by the aggressive, close-up recording.
But the extra color is worth it. The all-consuming vision of
Rueda’s symphony is cathartic, and Valdés and his
orchestra exult in it, making this another important release
in the Spanish Classics series from Naxos.
Mark Sebastian Jordan