Rouse Violin Concerto; Rapture; (Der) gerettete Alberich
Christopher Rouse (b1949) is one of the more genuinely individual composers working in today’s American mainstream. Having incorporated elements of rock music into his own long before such things became fashionable, he has specialised lately in big orchestral statements, challenging as well as accessible.
As is typical of the new wave of percussion concertos, Der gerettete Alberich (1997) works well enough in live performance where the physical theatre of a hyperactive soloist helps offset the unavoidable diffuseness of what one actually hears. Without the visuals it is more difficult to know how to take the piece. In plundering Alberich’s themes from Wagner’s Ring for his raw material, the composer doesn’t seem to be setting up any sort of meaningful critique or dialectic. The music begins with the euphonious close of Götterdämmerung and ends with the pedal E flat which opens Das Rheingold. Are we to infer that ‘Alberich Saved’, whether by accident or design, has reversed time and put the world to rights?
The scoring can be blatant but imaginative, but what comes later is a sort of motivic porridge. And strangely, given the opportunities to hand, Rouse admits only one stretch of rock drumming. It comes, deafeningly, at the start of the final section (of three) and is a noisy cartoon version of the real thing, just as Alberich is here very much a pantomime villain.
Rapture (2000) is harmonically much simpler, possibly in deference to the stylistic proclivities of its dedicatee, Mariss Jansons. Some readers will welcome its frank neo-romanticism. I wasn’t so sure. The piece is conceived as an increasingly active journey towards an isle of bliss that’s a good deal noisier than Rautavaara’s. In doing so it trades on Sibelian riffs and resonances with less freshness than, say, John Adams’ El Dorado.
For me, the most convincing music here is the oldest. The Violin Concerto (1991) was purpose-built for Cho-Liang Lin, a superb player too little heard on disc. Rouse makes his customary allusions, working within a two-part structure that is both satisfying and unusual. The Barcarola’s opening tissue of music for string quartet (the soloist plus three orchestral players) is memorably savaged by a tutti chord that subsides into C minor. Its equally haunting conclusion leads immediately to the concluding Toccata, which has the requisite raciness and dazzle of the romantic concerto finale while remaining no more than quasi-tonal.
How to sum up? Though decently prepared and packaged to Ondine’s usual high standards, this may not be the best starting-point for the uninitiated. There’s more substance in Christoph Eschenbach’s disc of Phaethon, the Second Symphony and the Flute Concerto (Telarc, 8/97), let alone Marin Alsop’s sensational coupling of the Trombone Concerto, Gorgon and Iscariot (RCA, 8/97 – nla). Alsop gave the UK premières of Die gerettete Alberich and Rapture, and it may be that she brings a special conviction to the idiom. Even so, it’s hard not to conclude that two of the works here represent not only a softening of temper but a certain lowering of artistic sights.