Previously published on July 14

When Leonard Slatkin emailed me to advise that Christopher Rouse had died I was shocked and saddened. I had no idea he had been ill, and for some time. The following day I posted this: “Classical Source is very sorry to learn (on Saturday evening, September 21) that the distinguished and distinctive American composer Christopher Rouse has died. He was born in Baltimore on 15 February 1949 and leaves a catalogue of great works.

Leonard meanwhile had tweeted: “A major voice in American music has been silenced. Christopher Rouse will be remembered for his incredible individuality, humility, immense knowledge and willingness to share. His music will be performed and cherished by those who knew him and those just discovering his talent.

I then added a Postscript: “Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No.6, commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and completed on June 6 this year [2019], receives its world-premiere performances on October 18 & 19 [2019] conducted by Louis Langrée. Symphony 5 was premiered in February 2017 by the Dallas SO and Jaap van Zweden.

Rouse himself had said: “I believe the purpose of music is to convey something meaningful, nourishing, enlightening from the human spirit that speaks of the creator of the work to the listener, the viewer, the reader, to other human spirits about what it is to be alive. And I think how you organize your material is really just a means of making that expressive or emotive meaning coherent.

Not that I can claim any more than being known to Chris (as he always signed himself), an acquaintance, but I had interviewed him a couple of times and on 21 April 2016 I bumped into him at the Barbican Centre when the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Joshua Weilerstein included Rapture (2000, Pittsburgh/Jansons) in a concert. I emailed him occasionally afterwards and he always replied, and also contributed to a couple of CS features. What turned out to be his final correspondence is dated July 30 last year, without any suggestion of his being unwell or worse; I suppose he wouldn’t be so forthcoming to a relative stranger.

He did though know, through reviews and conversation, that I greatly admired his music, its power, compassion and imagination. My Rouse wish-list includes hearing his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the latter he knew would be his musical Last Will and Testament: Naxos obliges with the former.

I started though with Concerto for Orchestra (2008, Cabrillo Festival Orchestra/Marin Alsop), the oldest music here and new to me; this is its first recording. It opens at whirlwind speed and with dazzling textures, fragmenting to eeriness and intense/despairing expression from the strings, recovering emotionally into something scherzo-like, cavorting spectrally. The moods are varied, even volatile: this goes beyond titular expectations. As so often with Rouse, the music is compelling and universal. Fanciful or not on my part, from 16:03 the basses seem to suggest Tristan (a Rouse hallmark is to reference other composers’ pieces) and as the registers are climbed we reach a wondrously celestial episode, suggesting perhaps Mahler 10 or the ‘Sarabande’ from Busoni’s Doktor Faust; somewhat chilling yet so inviting; following which a suspenseful passage and then a rallying cry – brass and bells summoning colleagues to a rampaging conclusion. As befits a Concerto for Orchestra, everyone gets a look in.

Supplica (2013), for Pittsburgh brass, harp and strings, has previously been recorded (Oregon/Kalmar) although it’s not come my way before. It has been likened to a Bruckner or Mahler slow movement (not that the composer indicated this), and while I get that comparison, I find something of Charles Ives in it (when he was remodelling the European masters) and not just because of the questioning trumpet solo, from 8:00, answered by strings that have a John Williams stamp and then a heavenly harp. This enigmatic piece is certainly soulful and personal.

And so to Symphony 5. Like Concerto for Orchestra it lasts half-an-hour and plays continuously. It may open stridently but we’re soon striding outdoors; this is music with a punch, but not aggressive, and there’s no doubting what Rouse is cribbing from this time, threading a familiar motif through: Rouse 5 meets Beethoven 5, which the American cites as the first piece of classical music that really meant something to him. For the first eight minutes Rouse whoops us along, page after page of irrepressible energy, sun-shining the green hills – virtuoso writing and orchestration – and then in an instance we are secluded and maybe moonlit, cueing another example of Rouse pecking at our heartstrings, taking us somewhere unexpected, mysterious but curiously non-threatening, despite some juicy trombone utterances. Not until 23:44 does the music return to vigour and direction – to a knockout/optimistic conclusion, Chris and Ludwig in accord, Terrific piece!

Throughout, the Nashville Symphony and Giancarlo Guerrero do this Rouse triptych proud and enjoy the services of producer Tim Handley and expert engineering to fully capture detail, dynamics and the excellent acoustic of Laura Turner Concert Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Naxos 8.559852.

Postscript: having written the above review I chanced to see if the premiere of Rouse 6 (Cincinnati/Langrée, 10/2019) had been recorded and that it might be on YouTube. Yes! Here it is: