This release combines two previously issued recordings of the first two Nightshades (review
) coupled with a new rendition of Final Nightshade. The whole is now billed as a ‘Nightshade Trilogy’. Actually leave may be taken to doubt whether the three works really constitute a ‘trilogy’ in the sense of a connected whole, since there is no musically thematic connection between any of the pieces; rather they are a cycle of three similarly named compositions, as if we were to talk of a set of ‘Beethoven symphonies’. They are also scored for very different combinations of instruments – the first for a small chamber ensemble, the second for a classical orchestra with added percussion and trombones, and the third for full modern symphonic forces. Indeed they serve better to illustrate the evolution of the composer’s music over the period of seventeen years during which they were written.
The first work, simply entitled Nightshade, is very much in Ruders’s early style, with much emphasis on woodwind instruments at the extremes of pitch – piccolo contrasted with double bassoon and double-bass clarinet, for example. The results are not particularly alluring ... at any rate by comparison with the composer’s more recent works. Although the playing under Oliver Knussen is competent and committed there remains some uneasy sense of the whole failing to cohere.
The Second Nightshade, commissioned for Peter Maxwell Davies’s St Magnus Festival in Orkney, sounds almost like a conscious tribute to the British composer. The music emerges from a solitary bleakness into a final section of moonlit clarity which is positively beautiful in places. The work is subtitled a ‘symphonic nocturne’ which describes it admirably. It is not the fault of Ruders if some of the orchestral effects he employs – violin glissandi laid over the textures, thudding bass drum and sharp brass interjections – have become almost a lingua franca of modern composers in the two decades since the work was written. The result is that the music has an unfortunate tendency to sound rather like something we have heard before.
The Final Nightshade is something different, a lengthy meditation on a viola theme drawn from Ruders’s earlier Corpus cum figuris (1985). There are extended almost monodic lines scored for various instruments in unison and harmony. The subtitle ‘an adagio of the night’ clearly expresses exactly what Ruders had in mind. At the time of its first performance in New York under Lorin Maazel some critics clearly hated it, with complaints of boredom in “over-extended passages”. I found that the music held my attention throughout, and there was never any lack of interest. Perhaps the performance here was superior to that under Maazel — although both appear to have been approximately the same length. The Odense players under Scott Yoo clearly relish their extensive solo opportunities.
Despite the various ages of the recordings, the sound throughout is thoroughly consistent, with plenty of air around the various combinations of players and everything admirably clearly focused. Although the disc is rather short measure — any chance of a successor to the ‘final’ Nightshade? — it provides a thoroughly rewarding experience. It also affords a useful conspectus on the evolving style of the composer.
Paul Corfield Godfrey