Odna Zhizn, Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 and Prospero’s Rooms


This recording has completely blown me away, done my head in, wiped me out.

Finding a record as brilliant as this is why I love music. I get complacent, bored maybe, stuck in my ways – but keep looking & you never, ever know what you’re going to hear next.

So it is with this dark wonder.

It takes a bit of extra will to give ‘contemporary’ composers a go, but it’s nearly always an experience, one way or another. Somehow it’s just important to try to keep moving, to keep listening to what people have to say now, in my time. Sometimes I’m baffled, of course, but other times I’m stunned. And so it is with the heaving, pulsing music of Christopher Rouse.

Take for example, ‘Prospero’s Books’ – based on ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ by Poe. There was something recalled of ‘Peter Grimes’ in my mind – alternating fantastic interludes and elements, the colours of the masquerade like a swirling sea around Prince Prospero, storm and retreat, storm and retreat. I especially love the eerie, tinkling gentleness that appears and disappears – somehow reminiscent of John Williams’ score for Jaws – in a good way. I don’t want to give out a spoiler for Poe’s devilish masterpiece, but Rouse evokes powerfully for me the arrival of the man of the moment, the masquer dressed as the red death of the title itself. We are in the taut grip of silence, the thumping of terrified hearts, and then the great reveal. Listen to it with headphones with due care – Rouse’s music can flash and storm. The ending is sensational – right down to the rattlesnake sounds that betoken – I think – all the death in the air.

And this isn’t even the best. The second movement of the 4th Symphony (‘Doloroso’) is immense. Again, it has a very filmic character to it, as if we are viewing a great expanse of devastation, with only the faintest sense that light might be reconstructed – not unlike Strauss, viewing the destruction wrought by bombers. The symphony being in two movements (‘Felice’ being the first, swirling and running), there is a kind of brutal contrast between the sections. The second movement’s descent and fragmentation, quietly ending, raising a sort of forlorn hand here and there, then still quieter, but quieter, bleeding out … is mesmerising. I am reminded in my own response, because of the title, of Vivaldi and his ‘Stabat Mater’, but a similar sense of standing mournful is conveyed as the notes fade.

‘Odna Zhizn’, constructed of the spelling of various names, is, I understand, a very personal dedication to an unnamed person in Rouse’s life. It is music that is troubled, and yet carries a sense of awe, or love, perhaps. The almost sinister, solemn music that permeates all the pieces on this record – interplaying with a kind of mysterious dancing, sprite-like fantasy –  is here in this piece too, and if we imagine fashioning a text poem from a bucket of letters thrown in the air, the complex achievement of this symphonic equivalent is staggering.

Endlessly turning and twisting, febrile at times, I’m amazed by ‘Odna Zhizn’. When it passes across into the tension and quiet of the final minutes, you have the fierce instinct that very powerful emotion is at work. Again, we seem to be looking out over great vistas, but not so much at complete destruction this time – there seems to be just the faintest fragile joy of a great love fighting still. Even in the quiet final minutes when despair seems like an undertow – there are sounds like twisted sirens in the background  & the final notes are like a tinnitus ringing in our ears – there is survival.