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CD Reviews: Gilbert Champions Rouse / Fairyland of Songs

available at Amazon
C. Rouse, Symphonies 3-4 (inter alia), New York Philharmonic, A. Gilbert

(released on May 13, 2016)
Dacapo 8.226110 | 76'15"

[NY Phil Watch & Listen]

available at Amazon
"Schöne Welt..." (Schubert / Schreker / Korngold), A. Schwanewilms, C. Spencer

(released on May 13, 2016)
Capriccio C5233 | 63'40"
Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: A modern symphonic master
Washington Post, July 29

Next year, Alan Gilbert will step down as music director of the New York Philharmonic, which is a shame, not least for the way he has excelled at programming contemporary music. This disc features four new pieces by Christopher Rouse, three of which Gilbert premiered with the Philharmonic. These are high-quality live recordings, like those available on the orchestra’s “Watch & Listen” web streaming feature, which offers many of its recent concerts online.

Rouse composed his first two symphonies in 1986 and 1994, and didn’t return to the genre for more than 20 years. In 2011, he completed the Third Symphony, a “rewrite” of Prokofiev’s Second Symphony. Gilbert and his players dig into the first movement’s crisp rhythms and militaristic edge with biting attacks. The last minute of the movement is particularly thrilling, playing to the group’s forte, a crashing full-orchestra sound, while some of the smaller vignettes in the second movement’s theme and variations are less effective.

Rouse has said that he had “a particular meaning in mind” when he composed his Fourth Symphony, from 2013, but he prefers to keep it to himself. The titles of the two movements, “Felice” and “Doloroso,” point to something like mania and depression, borne out in the jaunty rollick of the first movement that collapses, without a pause, into the forlorn, weighted-down gestures of the second. Both of these symphonies constitute yet more examples of Rouse’s supremacy among living American composers in terms of melodic invention and calculated use of the orchestra. Happily, Rouse’s symphonic renaissance will continue, as Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra are set to premiere the Fifth Symphony in 2017.

In both of the one-movement works that round out the disc, Rouse broadens the sonic landscape with a large battery of instruments filled with more exotic colors. In “Odna Zhizn,” he overlays dissonant themes derived from names in a Russian friend’s life to chaotic and bewildering effect. “Prospero’s Rooms” contains some of the musical ideas Rouse sketched for an operatic adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” Given this work’s musical and literary creepiness, reminiscent in some ways of Bartók’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle,” if Rouse still wants to write an opera, companies should be commissioning him.
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