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Knudåge RIISAGER (1897-1974)
Violin Concerto, Op.54 (1951) [22:52]
Etudes (1947) [41:08]
Ian van Rensburg (violin)
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra/Andreas Delfs
rec. 2017, Symphonic Hall, Aarhus, Demark
DACAPO 8.226145 [64:00]

Riisager only wrote two solo concertos, the Concertino for Trumpet and Strings and the Violin Concerto of 1951. The violin was a suitable vehicle for the composer as it was the instrument he had learned as a boy. He wrote the concerto for the popular figure of Wandy Tworek, who had given the Danish premiere of the Bartók Sonata for solo violin; he also recorded it as you can hear in an excellent twofer devoted to Tworek.

The Concerto was written at a busy time in Riisager’s compositional life. It’s a bipartite work with a slow first movement and a fast finale, each movement of the same approximate length. It’s also a deeply appealing work with plenty of expressive breadth full of anticipation and ripe lyricism, not untroubled by a few tart interjections, notably from the brass. Especially in that Tranquillo opening movement there is a sense of real space and of a splendid control of sectional balance, character, and atmosphere. And in those respects, I’d especially like to commend the Aarhus clarinet principal. When Riisager takes his soloist high, Ian van Rensburg is up to the challenge, a worthy successor to Tworek. The Vivo is athletic but Riisager doesn’t fall into the trap of making too brutal a cut between lyricism and virtuoso flourish; that might well have unbalanced the work. Instead he prefers a more cautious route strewn with just the kind of jagged phraseology that Tworek, an accomplished technician, would have enjoyed surmounting. There’s a splendid cadenza as well, dispatched with bravado by van Rensburg.

Four years earlier Riisager alighted on piano etudes by Czerny and fashioned them into a 13-movement work for small orchestra. Soon afterwards he incorporated just over half these pieces - but expanded and re-orchestrated - into a ballet called Etudes. He also intervened gently in Czerny’s structures and played sophisticated games with keys to allow a kind of polytonal effect slip into the music. The results are consistently enjoyable with fine distribution between strings and winds and brass, full of colouristic opportunities and rhythmic vitality. There is necessary expression, as befitted the requirements of the choreography, as well as delicacy and refinement. The dances are vivacious; there is a great deal of charm and no sign at all of an arid exercise. Indeed, humour of the insouciant kind is always around the corner.

The Aarhus Orchestra is expertly directed both in Etudes and the Concerto by Andreas Delfs and they’ve been captured in a splendid acoustic. Competition in these works is not excessive but is notable. The marvelous Kai Laursen recorded the Concerto many years ago for Danacord in the context of his monumental devotion to Danish concertos; it’s available but in inferior sound. Gennadi Rozhdestvensky recorded Etudes with the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra on Chandos nearly 25 years ago, another excellent disc but differently coupled.

Jonathan Woolf

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