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Christopher ROUSE (1949-2019)
Symphony No. 5 (2015) [30:00]
Supplica (2013) [12:19]
Concerto for Orchestra (2008) [29:02]
Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero
rec. 2017-19, Laura Turner Concert Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, USA
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559852 [71:32]

The late American composer Christopher Rouse died in September, 2019, and so his passing is still fresh on the minds of his many admirers. In his Symphony No. 5 here he pays homage to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which is obvious right off in the appearance of the famous, so-called “fate” motto. It was not unusual for Rouse to tip his hat to other composers: his Symphony No. 3 is modeled on and inspired by Prokofiev's Second Symphony, using its formal design, making strong allusions to certain passages and employing similar orchestration. Both Beethoven and Prokofiev were significant models for the young Rouse: at six he heard a recording of Beethoven's Fifth and that experience made him decide to become a composer; not long after he heard a recording of Prokofiev's Scythian Suite which served most compellingly as his introduction to “modern” music. Rouse has become known over the years as a composer of loud or raging music, as well as of dark or tragic works, having written a string of them in the early 1990s inspired by someone's passing. Yet, he is quite versatile and has composed music of great variety, whether optimistic and happy, or ethereal and dark, or warm and emotionally moving.

Here his Symphony No. 5, cast in four continuous movements, begins with a quick statement of that Beethoven motto, but it is presented in a completely different way. It is heard several times throughout the first movement and in the later movements, though often veiled. There is nothing in Rouse's style that one could link to Beethoven, however, as it is clearly music of this age, though tonal and mostly quite accessible for the listener. The first movement is energetic and driven and often percussion-laden. Sometimes though the music settles into a nonchalance that vaguely recalls Hindemith in its string and woodwind writing. But the vigor and vehemence always return and the movement closes with heavy brass and percussion resounding.

The second movement bridges right into the musical flow with sudden quiet and seeming solitude. Soon an ethereal and eerie atmosphere is brought mainly by the strings, the music here quite hauntingly effective. The Scherzo arrives in a playful though menacing mood, but soon yields back to music from the second movement. The Scherzo music returns and then the finale begins. Here, the percussion rings out powerfully, but is the music angry now? The brass suggest great triumph—and triumphant it becomes, even though the Beethoven motto seems at times to herald a darker resolution.

The one-movement Supplica is quite a serene work whose inspiration was never disclosed by the composer. In the album notes Michael May speaks of “the intimacy and passion of this music which unfolds somewhat like the slow movement from a lost Bruckner or Mahler symphony.” Actually it doesn't sound much like either composer, but in mood and spirit it certainly calls to mind both, especially Bruckner. The music is mostly lyrical and seems to ponder the deeper issues of life while remaining passionate but never emotionally gushing.

The Concerto for Orchestra is in a single movement consisting of two parts, the first having five sections, the latter two. The first part has a fast-slow-fast-slow-fast structure, while the second has a slow-fast design. The work opens with chattering and whirling brass playing quite lively and upbeat music. The slow section that follows has those eerie, ethereal strings again, in this instance playing a rather mesmerizing theme. The ensuing fast music brings an earth-shaking and heavily scored percussive climax. The slow music that comes next features woodwinds singing weirdly mysterious music, not unlike that of the previous slow section but with entirely different thematic material. The fast music that closes the first half develops from scurrying strings and then the full orchestra becomes involved. The tempo often struggles to maintain momentum and then finally collapses, yielding to the music in the second half.

Again, it begins in a serene but somewhat ghostly mood that starts to erupt and portend some awful doom. That never comes but the music remains restless until the concluding fast section arrives. Here the tempo only gradually increases its pace, but once it gets going the scoring becomes very colorful, with many different percussion instruments joining in along with much commentary from all other sections of the orchestra. This integration allows for many clever passages of interesting exchanges or moments where instruments blend together to create a quite unique sound world, in the end showing us Rouse's masterly skill in orchestration. The ending is utterly thrilling.

Naxos offers well balanced and quite vivid sound reproduction in all three works on this CD. Only Supplica has been recorded before and that effort featured Carlos Kalmar leading the Oregon Symphony Orchestra on Pentatone, which I have not heard. Thus, the other two works here are given their recording premieres and they feature quite compelling music. I liked the Concerto for Orchestra best of all here, though the Symphony No. 5 has much to offer as well. All three performances are excellent as Giancarlo Guerrero draws utterly splendid playing from the Nashville Symphony. This ensemble has made a surprisingly large number of recordings over the years, much of it devoted to contemporary music, which seems to be their bread and butter as evidenced by these performances. The playing is very spirited, with precise execution, fine balances and dynamics, and an idiomatic grasp on the style of the music. Their account of the Concerto for Orchestra is simply stunning to my ears and the other two works are both splendidly brought off too. Kudos to both the conductor and this fine ensemble. By the way, as listed in the heading, this orchestra goes simply by the name “Nashville Symphony”. If contemporary music of an accessible yet quite individual character is of interest to you, then you will find this a most rewarding disc.

Robert Cummings



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