RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Jesús RUEDA (b. 1961)
Symphony No. 3 Light (Luz) (2004-2007) [42:45]
Imaginary Journey (Viaje imaginario) (1998) [8:41]
Asturias Symphony Orchestra (OSPA)/Maximiano Valdés
rec. Sala Principal del Auditorio Principe Felipe, Oviedo, Asturias, Spain, 21 November, 2008.
NAXOS 8.572417 [51:26]
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
Dazzling, cathartic music in an exultant performance.