CHRISTOPHER ROUSE II: Flute Concerto; Symphony No. 2; Rapture – Sharon Bezaly, flute/ Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Alan Gilbert – BIS CD-1586 (Distr. by Qualiton) ****:
Alex Ross, in his superb book on twentieth century music, “The Rest is Noise,” credits critic Kyle Gann for categorizing several American composers as “Midtown” (Manhattan, that is) “who are still working in traditional orchestral, operatic and chamber-music genres, their harmonies usually more tonal than not.” Ross goes on to say that these composers “have regained the confidence of mainstream classical listeners who never quite got around to accepting Schoenberg, never mind Milton Babbitt.” Christopher Rouse is one of those named, and is not only performed often by symphony orchestras in America, but is the recipient of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize (for his Trombone Concerto) and a Grammy award (for Yo Yo Ma’s recording of the Cello Concerto). While Professor of Composition at the Eastman School of Music, he taught a course in the history of rock music. Many of his works, including two on this disc, deal with the composer’s reaction to death of musicians, heroes and relatives.
The outer movements of Rouse’s Flute Concerto of 1993 reflect the composer’s connection to the music of the British Isles. The work opens with a gorgeous but rather sad Amhran (song) played by the flute. An abrupt, jaunty and raucous march follows. The central slow movement, Elegy, is a moving, tragic and pensive dirge to the senseless kidnapping and murder of a two year old child. Although the remaining two movements are similar to the first two – an Irish jig and a repeated Amhran – Rouse says, “the large central slow movement is meant, in some way, to alter our perception and understanding of the music that follows it, even though that music is essentially the same as the music preceeding it.” The repeated jig became demonic and the final song embodies tragic acceptance. This wonderful work demonstrates the power of musical suggestion has over the listener’s emotional response to it. The great flutist Sharon Bezaly plays it with consummate musicality and emotion.
Rouse’s beginning of the Second Symphony (1994) initially engages the mind and spirit, using rhymically pointillistic winds and brass over strings, but there’s a nervous undertone to the first movement that ends shockingly. It represents the violent death in a car accident of Rouse’s fellow composer, Stephen Albert. The adagio that follows is the composer’s quiet and pained memorial to the loss of his friend, with a short burst of timpani that is a prelude to the final movement, a musical avalanche of livid anger. As the composer states, this is “very much in the spirit of Dylan Thomas’ ‘Do not go gentle into that good night….Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’” It’s a brilliantly orchestrated work of a composer who knows how to effectively communicate the emotional range of the death of a loved one.
Rapture (2000), the eleven minute tone poem that follows, is a moving antidote to the anger of the end of the Second Symphony. “It seeks to describe a very gradual progression from the warm serenity in the opening through to an almost blinding ecstasy at the end,” the composer writes. The incessant tempo and the growing dramatic fullness of the orchestra imparts an intensity that merits the works title. Alan Gilbert, the new Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, demonstrates his affinity for the music of our times and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra is another excellent Scandinavian ensemble. The distinct, yet integrated sound of these complex orchestral works, recorded at different times between 2003 and 2007, is effectively transmitted by the BIS team of engineers. A disc for the curious and adventurous new music seeker.
— Robert Moon