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Poul RUDERS (b.1949)
Violin Concerto No.1 (1981)a
Etude and Ricercare (1994)b
The Bells (1993)c
The Christmas Gospel (1994)d
Rolf Schulte (violin)a; David Starobin (guitar)b; Lucy Shelton (soprano)c; Riverside Symphonya; Speculum Musicaec; Malmö Symphony Orchestrad; George Rothmana, David Starobinc, Ola Rudnerd
Recorded: SUNY Purchase, Theatre C, November 1994 (Violin Concerto No.1); MasterSound Astoria, June 1995 (Etude and Ricercare); American Academy of Arts and Letters, April 1994 (The Bells) and Malmö, October 1994 (The Christmas Gospel)
BRIDGE BCD 9057 [61:46]
Poul Ruders is the most distinguished Danish composer of his generation. His music has been fairly well represented so far, at least on CD. Bridge’s ongoing series of Ruders recordings has played a major part in this representation. The release under review is Volume 2.

The Violin Concerto No.1 of 1981 is Ruders in his neo-classical mood. He revisits some Neo-classical trends and remoulds them in his own inimitable way, which implies a good deal of mild irony. He weaves allusions or brief quotes from Vivaldi’s ubiquitous Four Seasons into his own sound world, which results in somewhat unexpected harmonic clashes. In the first movement (Echoes of a Spring), brief quotes from Vivaldi’s Spring are confronted by, engulfed in or contradicted by Ruders’ own music, in a way not unlike Schnittke’s. A brilliant cadenza leads into a beautiful lullaby (Ninna-nanna) which is entirely of Ruders’ own making and in which he allows his natural lyricism to sing freely. This is a beautiful simple melody floating freely over a passacaglia-like bass line. The final Winter Chaconne quotes again from Vivaldi but also from a song from Schubert’s Winterreise. At the very end, the music ‘freezes’ on a high E-natural played by the violin.

Poe’s verse has already attracted some attention from several composers, and one of the best known settings is Rachmaninov’s choral symphony The Bells, on Poe’s eponymous poem. Ruders’ own setting for soprano and ensemble was written on a commission from the Nash Ensemble. From the start, Ruders had Lucy Shelton’s voice in mind; and, needless to say, she sings beautifully in this recorded performance. This is a brilliant, virtuosic setting in which the composer followed the various implications of the words and translated them into sound. The music aptly and often vividly reflects the moods suggested by the words. The end is particularly gripping in its simplicity; the repeated words in the poem being echoed by the mournful tolling of hollow (prepared?) piano chords. It may interest some to know that there exists another setting of The Bells, by the Belgian composer Jean Rogister, for reciter, flute, oboe, harp, piano and string quartet composed in 1924, rarely heard and still unrecorded at the time of writing.

Etude and Ricercare was written for David Starobin for whom Ruders also composed his two guitar concertos, Psalmodies (1989, on Bridge 9037) and Paganini Variations (2000, on Bridge 9122, to be reviewed shortly). This is a substantial Prelude and Fugue in all but name. It expertly and idiomatically exploits the many possibilities of the instrument, conspicuously stripped bare of the Hispanic clichés too often associated with it. The short Etude leads into a complex, intricately contrapuntal Ricercare. A major addition to the guitarist’s repertoire; definitely very taxing but well worth the effort.

In 1994, Ruders composed his first film score for Trine Vester’s short movie The Return of the Light using no spoken dialogue and combining animation and live-acting. The music is continuous throughout and re-tells the Christmas story in barely ten minutes. The film score was given a new lease of life under the title The Christmas Gospel heard here. This is Ruders at his most inventive and imaginative conjuring colourful, sharply characterised musical sketches moving at great speed, with many fine and arresting orchestral touches displaying Ruders’ orchestral mastery. A number of unusual percussion instruments were specially created for this work by the Danish percussion virtuoso, Gert Sørensen. This is one of Ruders’ most accessible scores, in which the composer manages to be simpler while never writing down to his potential audience. Significantly too, Ruders managed to dispense with the all too obvious quotations of Christmas carols, although a tune in the 28th section (The infanticide) comes quite near to one. One cannot but wonder why this lovely work is not heard more often, though one realises that the extra percussion needed may partly account for the lack of performances.

From quite early in his career, Ruders displayed an incredible aural imagination in some striking, highly personal pieces which seemed then rather radical or ‘advanced’. Over the years, he considerably enlarged his expressive and emotional palette, although his music still has some mild irony in store. The First Violin Concerto belongs to ‘early’ Ruders but the other pieces show a composer in full command of his aims and means, no longer afraid to give his lyrical nature full rein.

These performances, by distinguished artists, all having a long association either with the composer or the works (or both), serve the music well and make this a most desirable release.

Hubert Culot

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