Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Christopher Rouse's "Der gerettete Alberich"

Continuing my series of program notes:

Christopher Rouse (born 1949)
Der gerettete Alberich – fantasy for percussionist and orchestra (1997)

At the end of Götterdämmerung, the final opera in Wagner’s ‘Ring cycle’, Brünnhilde has ridden her horse into Siegfried’s funeral pyre, Valhalla has burned to the ground killing the gods and the Rhine has flooded the world, leaving the earth ripe for renewal. But what has happened to Alberich, the Nibelung-king, who set the chain of destruction in motion by cursing the ring? Wagner doesn’t say. Is he free to wreak havoc all over again?

Arthur Rackham's illustration of Alberich driving the Nibelungs
This is the question that inspired Christopher Rouse when he composed Der gerettete Alberich. What you have here is part-concerto. Composed for Evelyn Glennie, the work demands the soloist’s skill on a different set of percussion instruments in each movement – guiros and a bank of bongos, wood blocks, and other drums in the first; marimba and steel pan in the second; drum kit in the third. But the work is also programmatic. The title can be translated into English as ‘Alberich Saved’ and critic Colin Anderson has outlined the three movements in terms of ‘Alberich plotting his nefarious schemes, then reflecting on his mis-spent and, in some ways, tragic life, and then...on the rampage to once again seek the ring of power to make him lord of the world’.  Rouse himself has described the work as ‘more of a fantasy for solo percussionist and orchestra’. But it’s also ‘a fantasy...on themes of Wagner’.
Use of quotation is nothing new in Rouse’s work – his Symphony No.1 incorporated the Adagio from Bruckner’s Symphony No.7; the Trombone Concerto cited music of Leonard Bernstein who had recently died. But Rouse’s use of quotation is not gimmickry. Rather it is a Mahlerian embrace of the world. Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed has spoken of Rouse incorporating ‘ uncontrived, the range of the musical experience typical of his generation’, and this includes Rock ‘n Roll, which no doubt inspired ‘Alberich’’s drum kit workout at the beginning of movement three.
You can cite impressive facts about Rouse. He’s currently the Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his Trombone Concerto and has won a Grammy Award for his Guitar Concerto, Concert de Gaudi (2002). What is perhaps more impressive is the genuine emotional experience he can provide to an audience. Early works could be speedy and harrowing; a change of direction saw him master the slow movement. Many listeners have remarked on a darkness in Rouse’s vision. The last page of his Symphony No.1 carries the inscription ‘de profundis clamavi’ (From the depths I have cried out to you, O Lord). But works from the late 1990s marked a ‘look towards the light’. Der gerettete Alberich could be thought to straddle both dark and light visions.
The work opens with the closing bars of Götterdämmerung (the ‘Redemption through Love’ motif). Then Alberich insinuates his return on the guiro. This segues into music to which Alberich slipped on rocks at the bottom of the Rhine in Das Rheingold. The return of this motif later, after much development of themes, signals a kind of recapitulation. The second movement is one of Rouse’s ‘wondrous’ slow movements. The appropriateness of Alberich’s ‘Renunciation of Love’ motif, played by a forlorn solo oboe after a downward string glissando, is almost uncanny. The dawn music followed by the baleful pronouncement of the ‘Power of the Ring’ motif leads into the third movement which begins sounding almost like an American high school football marching band. In this movement ‘Alberich’ wreaks maximum havoc, most obviously in timpani and percussion cadenzas on the Nibelung motif. It’s terrifying but not without humour when you realise that Rouse has used the ‘Alberich turning himself into a serpent’ motif to wind up tension in the bass.
It is marvellous the way Rouse weaves Alberich-related motives from Wagner’s masterwork into his own composition. But the work is not really an excuse to play ‘spot the quote’ (although you get the impression Rouse would not begrudge any audience that fun). It’s probably enough to acknowledge that this work exemplifies Rouse’s music as some of the most compelling, enjoyable and satisfying around today and that Der gerettete Alberich is a spectacular showcase for a percussion soloist.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2013

This note first appeared in program booklets of orchestras associated with Symphony Services International (http://symphonyinternational.net/). Please contact me if you would like to reprint this note in a program booklet. If you would like to read more of my notes on this blog please see:

Edward Elgar's Froissart, published 2 July 2013
Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, published 3 July 2013
Franz Waxman's Carmen-fantaisie, published 6 July 2013
Jan Sibelius's Oceanides, published 8 July 2013
Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod, published 12 July 2013 
Aaron Copland's Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, published 18 July 2013
John Williams' Escapades, published 22 July 2013 
Thomas Adès's Violin Concerto Concentric Paths, published 26 July 2013 
J.S. Bach's Cantata: "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott", BWV.80, published 28 July 2013  
Beethoven's 5th and 6th Symphonies, published 29 July 2013 
Wagner's  Götterdämmerung (Immolation Scene), published 31 July 2013
Liszt's Tasso, published 2 August 2013
Stravinsky's Les Noces orchestrated by Steven Stucky, published 8 August 2013
Liszt's Hamlet, published 15 August 2013
Scriabin's Piano Concerto, published 18 August 2013

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