Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Poul RUDERS (b. 1949)
Piano Works
Star-Prelude and Love Fugue; Sonata No. 1 "Dante Sonata"; Three Letters from the Unknown Soldier; Sonata No. 2
Rolf Hind (piano)
rec. July 2000 (DDD)
DACAPO 8.224148 [69'10]

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I must confess, half a minute into this record, I honestly thought that the needle had stuck. I even got up to give the pickup a nudge before I remembered that this was a CD. Anyway, while I was up, I checked that the laser transport wasn't stuck. It wasn't. Damn, I thought, this bloke's one of them there minimalists - you know, they get a neat idea, then take 25 pages of score before they finally figure out something that they might do with it. Minimalists would, to my mind, create a far better impression if they went the whole hog. Prejudiced, moi? Well, yes, I suppose - but then aren't we all, to some extent? Never mind, my train of thought continued, I'll gird up my loins (whatever that means), do my duty to Queen and Country, and hear the bloke out. You see, "Nothing If Not Fair" is indeed my middle name (though I'll spare you from the others).

I can't say that I'm exactly over-familiar with the music on this disc, but at least I've actually heard of Poul Ruders, which gives me a flying start over about half of the stuff Mr. Barnett has thus far dispatched in my direction. Even so, I was in desperate need of a bit of background information. Turning to the CD booklet, I absorbed the opening broadside: "Ruders is by nature what the Germans call an Ausdruckmusiker. Everything he has written is marked by a decided will to expression." Oh, terrific! I wracked my brains, but failed to come up with so much as a single composer who doesn't fall into that category. Never mind, perhaps it'll get better. Learning that Ruders was "turned into a composer" (shades of Pygmalion?) by an encounter with Penderecki's neo-expressionist music, notably Threnos, I brightened - I rather like Penderecki. Then I found that this influence soon faded out.

Ruders' music, apparently along with the rest of Danish music, subsequently developed along lines dismayingly described in terms like "post-serialism", "concretism", and "stylistic pluralism". Following Maxwell Davies' exemplary "furore-arousing musicodramatic works" (also an apt enough description for Le Sacre du Printemps - so maybe things will look up!), he thereby acquired a taste for things mediaeval (and, I presume, qualified as a "mediaevalist"). Thus it was that by the 1980s Ruders had a "characteristic unpredictability", in which "sunny neoclassicism and abstract expressionism" stood shoulder to shoulder. Thereafter, Ruders acquired still further pigeonholings - "neoromantic", "postmodernist" (how the hell do you swing that: surely, "post" means "after", and "modern" means "now", don't they?). At present, he is considered a "minimorphosist", though as the present CD contains no works in this vein, I'll not even try to fathom what that might be. By now, my brain awash with "isms", I was convinced that if this bloke amasses any more categorisations, we'll be able to pigeonhole him simply as a "late-twentieth-centurist" and be done with it.

However, there's another important factor that I haven't yet mentioned - and here things get a bit bizarre! From 1974 he became increasingly preoccupied with "the ancient English change-ringing technique". Ah-ha! It just so happens that I do know something about that, having been a campanologist (of sorts) for a number of years in my (otherwise?) mis-spent youth. Ruders claims that he saw in the "change-ringing tables" a means of "creating long progressions and [his] own kind of minimalism" (recalling that "stuck needle", I'd been wondering when we'd get to that particular "ism"). There are two basic sorts of change-ringing - "Called" changes and "Methods". These latter, which constitute "proper" change-ringing, are "choreographed" by these here Tables. Broadly speaking, each Method is a rule that defines a sequence of permutations of the order of ringing. The sheer weight of the bells effectively limits moving "in" or "out" in the ringing order to one place at a time, so that the sequence must proceed incrementally, which is what (I presume) would have attracted Ruders. However, in Method-ringing, the permutations comply to NTSC (Never Twice the Same Change). In "Called" change-ringing, the same permutation is repeated indefinitely, until the conductor "calls" a change - making them PAL- compliant (Permutations Ad Lib). This can sound a bit more "musical", because repetition establishes expectation. It's easy to imagine how a composer could derive a kind of serialism out of such ideas. All very fascinating, but we must press on.

Having got over my problem with the "needle", I listened to the record, and heard nothing but noises. True, these noises were musical noises, but nevertheless noises (the word I actually thought was, I'll admit, slightly less complimentary!). In the normal run of things, I'd have given up there and then, and put on some Mahler or an Arnold symphony, or something equally relaxing. But no! I had my duty to perform, and anyway Ruders has written a load of music, and he's been played all over the place, so I owed it to the chap to give him a fair hearing. Time, then, for a bit of structured listening. So I played each piece in isolation, and (taking advantage of these wonderful CD facilities) worked through in chronological order.

First off, if you fail to appreciate this music, you can't blame the technology: from a purely technical standpoint this is a real rip-snorter of a recording, capturing the enormous range of dynamics with aplomb. Even listening via headphones (which I do a lot, out of consideration to The Light Of My Life, who has a very low pain threshold when it comes to music of this ilk), the piano occupied a very convincing sound-stage, fairly "front-row stalls", but sounding about the right size. I'm amazed at how often solo recitals are recorded on pianos that seem to be about thirty yards wide! The piano itself sounds really "grand", producing a well-rounded body (of sound) that satisfies in the blood-and-thunder passages, and is meltingly mellifluous in the dolce bits. This "open" combination of sharpness and richness is a pleasure all on its own. I feared that, following passages where it was given a right load of stick, the poor instrument might have gone a bit sulky, but not at all - it just came up trumps every time with the sweetest tone your heart could desire. The only complaint, and it is a very minor one, was that at some endings you can clearly hear the mechanism quietly clonking as Rolf Hind detaches his digits, but quite honestly I'd sooner have that than have the ambience hastily "faded to black"!

It goes without saying (doesn't it?) that Rolf Hind has exemplary credentials in this sort of repertoire - the blurb cites a list of composers whose work he has premiered, and it reads like a Who's Who of latter-day luminaries. Of course, reputation doesn't guarantee a good performance, but these all sound brilliant. I ticked off the points that I felt qualified to judge from my position of utter ignorance of the music itself. "Articulation" - superb: even in the fastest passage-work he found room for spaces either side of each note, and nary a fluff in sight (or sound). "Dynamics" - superb: from the wispiest whisper to veritable vulcanism (another "ism"!) and back again, and the only "joins" you could hear were those that you're supposed to hear. "Control" - superb: this music seems to demand a high degree of "inter-manual dynamic independence" right across the range, as well as the ability to make polyphony through graduated stressing of particular notes plucked like salmon from a torrent. "Aggression" - superb: some passages are real piano-smashers, and I did on occasions fear for the instrument's structural integrity. "Sensitivity" - superb: on numerous occasions, the music is reduced to a tender musing, and the sound he coaxes from the piano is positively throat-lumping. "Athleticism" - superb: there are places where his arms ought to have dropped off, but they didn't, and where he has to rummage around inside the works while remaining fully available to attend to the keyboard. In short, damned good playing, by anybody's standards. And so, to the music.

Three Letters from the Unknown Soldier (1967), referred to as his "debut work" (which I presume places it somewhere around Op. 1?), is the one piece representing Ruders the "post-Pendereckist", and the one piece that requires that somewhat inelegant "rummaging around". Whilst this produces some genuinely intriguing sounds, they are never really integrated into the overall musical fabric, existing merely as gratuitous "special effects". Contrast this with the work with which Three Letters is titularly compared: Penderecki's Threnody not only integrates its "special effects", they are the musical materials! Ruders produces a string of gestures - sudden outbursts, flurries of notes, and long, portentous resonances - but little by way of cohesion, probably because there are places where nothing happens, and these places are never between the movements.

The two-movement Piano Sonata No. 1 is called the Dante Sonata because it is intended as a programmatic representation of lines from Canto VII of The Inferno. This is a far more substantial and involving piece, occasionally nodding in the general direction of a certain Mr. Liszt. It was written in 1970, which means that it predates the onset of his fascination with change-ringing, though you wouldn't think so judging by the opening, a stark, angular cycle of notes, rammed through numerous permutative hoops and shunted up and down the tonal hierarchy for all the world like some grisly guitar "vamp". Tending to alternate with hammered sequences of repeated chords (the "second subject", dare we say?), the character is very much that of a musical mosaic. The middle brings an extended, vicious, violent and virtuosic ostinato - an blaze of noisy glory which finally yields to a luminous soft chorale spiced with prickly high notes. This actually sounds beautiful. The second movement, continuing the mosaic device, is more darkly ruminative, developing, as flurries of notes dissipate, into another chorale - this time sombre and funereal. There is interplay between transients and resonances, before the doleful dirge becomes beset by sudden "harpies".

The influence of the bells is obvious in the Piano Sonata No. 2 (1982). The first of the four movements starts on angular "bell chimes" derived from "Method" change-ringing in which the composer "calls" the permutations, inflected with occasional rhythmic dislocations and sudden variations of dynamic to keep you on your toes. Ruders' very astute blending of campanology with more conventional compositional devices gradually evolves into a sort of perpetuum mobile, replete with burgeoning cross-rhythms and sudden syncopations. As emergent sonorous chords start to coalesce, the layered texture becomes redolent of a Gamelan. Into my mind popped the word toccata, reminding me that Ruders says his music is "image-invoking", because the image this movement starts to invoke in me is that of "Bach on a Bender" - there's even a very grandiose peroration - terrific stuff! Bach continues to hover in the thoughtful, hesitant Sarabande - a "night-music" where little ripples in the upper register flit over a quiet but richly-coloured bass. The feeling of bell-permutations also lingers, albeit with a bit of a "kink", earning Ruders another pigeonholing: "diatonic serialist". Come the third movement, the layered ostinato technique becomes boogie-woogie, a syncopated chattering that never ceases, even when the piano is shuddering under the brutality of onslaught. Finally, the finale, and another image, courtesy of "the bells" - it reminds me of nothing more than a ruder-mentary Great Gate of Kiev without the tunes. Alternating pian' e forte, high and low, discord and concord, it could really have made its point in half the time. Hopefully, it will respond to a bit more familiarity.

The Star-Prelude and Love Fugue (1990) is, to quote the booklet, "dyed-in-the-wool minimalist music with phase shifting [between the hands]" - in other words, out-and-out "needle-stuck music", and by gum it sounds like it, even if it does make a nice noise (which this sort of stuff usually does, more's the pity!). Chattering, overlapping little rising phrases stretch out interminably, accents gradually teasing out a slower pulse which spreads into the bass. Around the remorseless chatter, a polyphony is slowly elaborated. The "fugue" follows with neither break nor change of pulse, the music just taking on a jazzy but not especially "fugue-y" quality. I hear you yell, "Bells! What about the Bells?" Sorry folks, not in this one!

In some parts of this spiel I may have, entirely without intent (of course!), sounded a trifle scathing. For differing reasons, as indicated, I regret to say that I remain so about the "Letters" and the "Love". Fortunately though, the meat of this disc lies in the two sonatas, which together account for about 52 minutes of the running time. These constitute a very different proposition - powerful, purposeful, and eloquent, and with the added fascination of that highly unconventional "change-ringing" device. At first hearing, they may well sound like pretty hard nuts to crack, but bear in mind that even I had already opened chinks in their armour on only the second hearing - I would even go so far as to say that the second time around I was actually enjoying them! Also a good omen is that I feel that there's still more in there just waiting to be dug out, and I've got this itch to "get back in there" coming on. Not bad going, for a "dyed-in-the-wool prejudiced reactionary".

Paul Serotsky

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