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".