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.
The longing to bring back the golden age of ancient Greece drove Lord Byron to seek out the sanctuary of Delphi on Mount Parnassus and fueled the dreams of countless other romantic writers and musicians. That “lovely age of flowers,” Friedrich Schiller wrote, lives now “only in the fairy world of song,” and Franz Schubert turned that very poem into a song, which gave the title to this new recording of lieder by soprano Anne Schwanewilms and pianist Charles Spencer. Glints of that lost world haunt the poetry Schubert set in the shimmering of the moon on desolate nights, the beauty of sun-filled landscapes, or the specters of dead girls and other Gothic phantasms.
Schwanewilms last performed in Washington through Vocal Arts DC in 2010, singing Strauss and Mahler songs. That fuller repertory is more suited to her voice, which is accustomed to flexing itself against an orchestra. Schubert’s songs “are a balancing act, a tightrope walk,” Schwanewilms writes in her booklet note. “Schubert leads the voice on a silken thread.” For the most part, she is able to walk that silken thread, deploying a dark-hued, low range for the creepy part of Death in “Death and the Maiden” and floating the top notes in the tender, slow “An den Mond” (D. 296). Occasionally, when she straightens out her tone, it gives the impression of pushing the pitch sharp or flat, and there’s a slightly odd covered tone at times. Spencer, a veteran accompanist, is self-effacing at the keyboard, but he adds pleasing touches, such as a tolling bell in “Die junge Nonne,” about a monastic novice fearful as a storm passes over her convent.
Songs in a similar spirit by Franz Schreker and Erich Korngold, both persecuted and driven from their homes by the Nazis in the 1930s, round out this recital. Schwanewilms opens up vocally in these later pieces, soaring and full in Korngold’s “Was du mir bist?” Neither Schreker’s “Fünf Gedichte” (Op. 3) nor Korngold’s “Drei Lieder” (Op. 22) is heard all that often, and the only familiar Schubert piece is “Ave Maria,” heard here with its original text from Sir Walter Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake.” The sole disappointment is that the booklet has no English translations of the song texts. In fact, the most recently published poetry, by Karl Kobald, is not even reproduced in German, since it is still under copyright.