Alan Gilbert conducts Christopher Rouse

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WORKS: Flute Concerto; Symphony No. 2; Rapture
PERFORMER: Sharon Bezaly (flute); Royal Stockholm PO/Alan Gilbert


The American composer Christopher Rouse has built an international reputation on a string of striking orchestral and concertante works in an intense, angsty, post-modernist idiom, and the pieces on these two discs are an impressive summation of his gifts.

Inhabiting a blackness somewhere beyond Shostakovich and Pettersson, the single-movement First Symphony (1986) takes a familiar theme from Bruckner’s Seventh and subjects its aspiration to all manner of ironic and negative underminings and reversals, ending in exhausted elegy.

Compared to its inexorable progress, the chamber-orchestra piece Iscariot (1989) is both more static and more texturally and melodically inventive, a private meditation full of teasing allusions, ending in an evocation of the chorale ‘Es ist genug’. Symphony No. 2, though 

 conceived at the same time as the First, was not committed to paper until 1994, by which time its central slow movement had acquired a deep expressive focus as a memorial to Rouse’s friend the composer Stephen Albert. For all its Shostakovich-style overtones this profoundly eloquent music is perhaps the most impressive track on either disc.

A sense of tragedy, though expressed in very different ways, is also present in the 1993 Flute Concerto, partly inspired by the horrific murder of the British toddler James Bulger (which gives rise to the central elegy around which the five movements are disposed) and poignantly alluding to various kinds of Celtic folk and popular music. Sharon Bezaly is a superb soloist, finding a more intimate quality of lyricism than does the original soloist Carol Wincenc on her Telarc disc. 

Very different, not just because lighter in mood (Rouse even calls it ‘silly’) is the 2003 Clarinet Concerto, mercurially changeable in direction and material, playing irreverent games with the number 12, and with a burlesque embedded pastiche ‘mini-concerto’ whose appearances are determined (shades of John Cage!) by rolls of the dice. The superb Martin Fröst is brilliant in its challenging solo part.


For me the Concerto is the highlight of the first CD. On the second, the 2000 orchestral piece Rapture has an altogether greater warmth than most of the other works and its long, ecstatic melodic lines are as redolent of Tippett as its majestic onward flow and final sunrise evoke Sibelius in contemporary guise. Calum MacDonald