Poul RUDERS (b.1949)
Piano Concerto no.2 (2009-10) [23:55]
Bel Canto, for solo violin (2004) [6:21]*
Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean, for accordion and string quartet (2004) [33:28] +
Vassily Primakov (piano)
Rune Tonsgaard (violin)
Mikko Luoma (accordion)
iO Quartet
Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Thomas Søndergård
rec. Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, 21-22 October 2010; *Carl Nielsen Concert Hall, Odense, 9 October 2009; +American Academy of Arts & Letters, New York, 27 March 2009. DDD
BRIDGE RECORDS 9336 [64:03] 

This is almost certainly the first CD ever to combine a piano concerto with a work for solo violin and another for accordion and string quartet - but then this is the 'Music of Poul Ruders'. It is also a series that now laudably reaches volume 6 - see reviews of volume 5, volume 3 and volume2. According to Bridge Records' own blurb, these are all premiere recordings, but in fact Dacapo beat them to it with Bel Canto - for proof, see review.
The Piano Concerto no.2 was written for Vassily Primakov, who seems to record exclusively for Bridge, not to mention prolifically, with an amazing fourteen discs in the last three years! Given Primakov's big name status, Ruders was keen to write a big piece in the grandest Romantic tradition, according to the CD notes. Which is not to say that this is a Romantic work, and it is unlikely that Primakov will have played very much from that tradition, or indeed any other, that is like the work's second movement, which is marked not only 'Semplice', but also 'Slightly hesitant - like a child practising'. What the Concerto is is a colourful, bustling, often unhinged, sometimes aggressive work, imaginatively orchestrated - the inspired bowed cymbal in the first movement, for example - with a breathtaking, window-rattling finale.
After the rumbustious shenanigans of the Piano Concerto, the lyrical solo violin of Bel Canto will seem almost aspirin-like in its aspiration and effect. An earlier work by Ruders for solo violin, his 1989 Variations, was recently reviewed here. Commissioned by and for the 2004 Carl Nielsen International Violin Competition, the title is not a reference to 19th century opera, but simply a statement in Italian of what the music hopes to give the listener: 'lovely song'. The notes describe the piece as "in effect a study in sensitive sustained playing and refined tone". It is certainly attractive, expressive music along the lines of an elegy, in some ways not at all what one might expect from Ruders - though not without moments of lively dissonance.
Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean sounds like the far-out title of a 1970s flower power concept album, but the work is on the contrary a tribute to American astrophysicist Carl Sagan's role in the "pursuit of knowledge and reason, an invaluable force in the struggle against ignorance and superstition", with the title coming from Sagan's 1980 book 'Cosmos'. The nine movements of the work are in some respects like the chapters of a book on science for the general public, each covering a different but related topic: the first and last sections are titled Introduction and Finale, but otherwise the work is more suite-like than strictly narrative. There is in any case a considerable amount of variety in character and technique from one movement to the next, from the cacophonous first, to the dreamy, wistful second, to the slow-motion dirge of the sixth and the satanic marching of the eighth. Throughout the work the 'cosmological constant', as it were, is to be inferred from the predominance of high registers. In any case, despite the significant quantities of dissonance, the unique sonorities of the accordion combine memorably with the quartet to create a surprisingly approachable work full of musical ideas, if not metaphysics.
It might seem reasonable to suppose that the Serenade is the first work ever written for the odd marriage of accordion and string quartet, but in fact there exists very nearly a 'tradition', particularly in Scandinavian countries: two whole CD anthologies have been devoted to the combination in the last decade - see reviews here and here (the latter re-released last year) - and outside the main geographical bloc, Korean-born Isang Yun's Concertino, David Diamond's Night Music and at least five of Wolfgang Rihm's Fetzen series of works are just a few examples of what is a surprisingly popular late 20th century pursuit.
Bridge recorded this disc in three different countries over 18 months, and it shows. In a departure from their usual highest technical standards, there is pulsing electronic interference under Bel Canto, especially noticeable from about three minutes onwards, and worsening over time. How it got there and why no one at Bridge noticed it - the credits list a producer, engineer, two editors, a mastering engineer and an executive producer - is a stimulating question, but through headphones at least it all but ruins the mood of the music. The faint noise of passing traffic audible in the quiet sections of Serenade or the background hiss in the Piano Concerto are vastly preferable, although even there it does seem that Bridge might have made more of an effort for what is after all a full-price disc.
On the other hand, there are no complaints whatsoever to be had about any of the musicians involved with this recording. Finnish accordionist Mikko Luoma and the New York based iO Quartet in particular give fine performances in the Serenade. 

The CD booklet is informative, with intelligent notes as ever by Malcolm MacDonald, and well presented. By way of curious footnote, this is the second new release in as many months to feature a living composer photographed smoking a pipe - see review - but that is somehow in keeping with the weirdly pop-art-like booklet cover.
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk
Colourful, bustling, often unhinged, sometimes aggressive.