Poul RUDERS (b. 1949)
Offred Suite (2000)a [20:15]
Tundra (1990) [5:05]
Symphony No.3 Dreamcatcher (2005/6, rev. 2009) [26:23]
Susanna Phillips (soprano)a
Odense Symphony Orchestra/Scott Yoo
rec. Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense, Denmark, 16-17 January 2012 (Offred Suite); 18-20 January 2012 (Symphony No.3) and 20 January 2012 (Tundra)
BRIDGE 9382 [51:48]
Subtitled Arias, Interludes and Postlude from the opera “The Handmaid's Tale” the Offred Suite is a substantial piece for voice and orchestra. It draws on material from Ruders' first opera, completed in 1998. These arias are sung by the opera's main protagonist whose name is unknown and who is referred to as the Handmaid of-Fred. Fred is the Commander of the fundamentalist dictatorship ruling over the remains of the United States known as Gilead. Due to nuclear radiation most couples have become infertile and the Handmaid acts as a surrogate mother for them. She is meant to bear the Commander's children. Contemplating suicide she eventually tries to escape to Canada although her ultimate fate is unknown at the end of the opera. She nevertheless records her story on tape. This taped memoir, or fragments of it, discovered two hundred years further in the future, provides the text for the Offred Suite. This records the Handmaid's story in what amounts to a short synopsis. The suite is actually conceived as a large-scale scena and the music flows continuously. The first song opens with the very beginning of the opera. The story is told in a hesitant, fragmentary way. The second aria What was that? is somewhat more agitated. She spots a cod-Latin inscription roughly meaning “Don't let the bastards grind you down”) probably written by one of her predecessors. She will only learn its meaning later. The next song, and by far the longest, Ev'ry Moon I watch for blood, finds Offred after her monthly insemination and check-up by the doctor, lamenting that she is not pregnant. If she is not able to conceive a child, she will be sent to one of the abandoned nuclear plants which corresponds to a death sentence. This is followed by a somewhat longer and more aggressive interlude ending with a brief distorted echo of Amazing Grace. It leads into a lighter song that is eventually crushed by another mighty interlude leading into the unaccompanied final aria “Whether this is my end or a new beginning … And so I step into the darkness or else the light”. These ambiguous words seem to reflect the Handmaid's unsettled fate. This superb piece of music is capped by the turbulent Postlude that ends the opera with what Malcolm MacDonald aptly describes as “a final sequence of quiet, dissonant chords like a distorted Amen”. Susanna Phillips sings wonderfully throughout this magnificent piece. It has definitely whetted my appetite to hear the opera which is available on CD from DaCapo: see reviews of this release, and the UK and North American premieres.
Tundra was commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra to mark the 125th anniversary of the birth of Sibelius. Other commissioned composers included Einar Englund (Ciacona), Thea Musgrave (Song of the Enchanter), Joji Yuasa (The Midnight Sun), Erkki-Sven Tüür (Searching for Roots), Tobias Picker (Séance), Wilfred Josephs (In the North) and Marius Constant (Hämeenlinna). These were first performed in 1990 and recorded in 1991 for release on an Ondine CD (ODE767-2) that may still be available. Another recording of Tundra is also available on Chandos CHAN 9179. This is a short atmospheric work suggesting a static surface teeming with unseen life below.
Ruders' Symphony No.3 “Dreamcatcher” draws on the very fine Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean (2004) for accordion and string quartet, the seventh movement of which bears the title of Dream Catcher. Incidentally this attractive work is available on Bridge 9336 which has been reviewed here. The symphony is in two large movements played without a break. The first movement opens with a powerful flourish that functions as a call-to-arms but the rest of the movement is predominantly slow and mostly scored for strings. The music, however, is rather tense and builds-up to stringent, though short-lived outbursts. The music then bridges into the second movement, a long Scherzo that nothing seems able to stop. Even shorter episodes do not halt the music. It keeps rushing on until it reaches a point of final exhaustion where the music from the first movement is recalled until the music winds down into stillness … “except that the final quiet sonority, conjured out of a Lion's Roar, a Chinese cymbal played with a bow, sul ponticello double basses, immensely low brass and bass clarinet, is as weird and unsettling a sound as any we have heard in the entire work” (Malcolm MacDonald). Indeed the very last sound we hear provides a magical conclusion to a rather complex work which the composer rather enigmatically describes as “a symphonic journey with a less-than-happy ending, open to all sorts of individual, metaphorical interpretations”. Nevertheless, what comes clearly through this mightily imposing work is Ruders' orchestral mastery. He is always likely to surprise the attentive listener with some unexpected twist or turn. This is the sort of work that definitely repays repeated hearings.
This release is already Volume 8 in Bridge's Ruders edition and it certainly does not pale when compared to its predecessors. The performances are uniformly excellent and the recorded sound just superb. Full marks to Malcolm MacDonald for his excellent and detailed notes from which I have unashamedly quoted. They form another asset to this most desirable release.
Volume 8 of Bridge's Ruders edition: two substantial works that deserve wider exposure.