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Poul RUDERS (b. 1949)
Piano Concerto No. 3 ‘Paganini Variations’ (2014) [18:14]
Cembal d’Amore, Second Book (1986) [19:53]
Kafkapriccio (2008) [21:25]
Anne-Marie McDermott (piano)
Odense SO/ Benjamin Shwartz, Andreas Delfs
Quattro Mani
rec. 2016/18, Nielsen Concert Hall, Odense, Denmark; Packard Recital Hall, Colorado College, USA
Ruders Edition Volume 15
BRIDGE 9531 [59:34]

I admit to being a bit of a curmudgeon where ‘that’ Paganini theme is concerned; it’s ubiquity in the annals of classical music and its irresistible allure to countless composers who have used it for the purpose of mining sets of variations is both a mystery and an irritation to me. Perhaps this has something to do with ITV’s good old South Bank Show; its too-clever-by-half theme and credits sequence for some reason certainly used to raise my hackles alas. My hopes for Ruders’ latest recorded piano concerto were accordingly rather low; therefore I’m pleasantly surprised to report that not only was the experience of making its acquaintance painless, it was also unexpectedly enjoyable.

This one movement work effectively a transcription of Ruders’ Guitar Concerto No 2 (written in 2000 for David Starobin, one of Bridge Records’ presiding spirits – it was he who encouraged the composer to re-work its guitar part for piano). The piano part, perhaps surprisingly given its provenance is wonderfully pianistic, or at the very least the much-admired American soloist Anne-Marie McDermott makes it sound that way. It needs a few listens to tease out its many delights, but the fast and light writing that dominates the opening is almost cinematic, evoking perhaps the swift tread of a classically inclined Buzz Lightyear figure soft-shoe-shuffling his way through 1920s Harlem, 1930s Paris, 1980s Greenwich Village and 17th century Venice via Per Nørgård’s ‘infinity series’…. and beyond. Yet this is no pastiche – the real joy of the work is that it is recognisably by Ruders –Paganini is kept firmly in the background. There is no little ingenuity in its quirky juxtapositions of chirpy rapidity and emotionally ambiguous stasis. The slow variations from about 5:00 and about 12:15 are rapt and rather seductive. The last three minutes of the concerto involve music of such extraordinary intricacy and dizzying speed that one ends up marvelling at the remarkable synchronicity between McDermott and the Odense Symphony Orchestra. Hats off to conductor Benjamin Shwartz for ensuring it all hangs together so convincingly!

At the other end of the disc they play with equal concentration and power for Andreas Delfs who directs Kafkapriccio, a five-movement suite from Ruders’ opera Kafka’s Trial. In fact this is a revision for full orchestra of the original piece which was conceived for an ensemble of fourteen players. I confess I have never heard the opera – given the lightness of touch Ruders displays in much of his instrumental music he certainly chooses some dark themes for his operas and having been duly harrowed by his treatment of The Handmaids’ Tale I gave the Kafka opera a wide berth, unwisely, on the evidence of this orchestral ‘trailer’. There’s a conjunction of Weimar and klezmer at the opening of Kafka (a kind of character portrait of the author) that is both infectious and alarming; indeed the more ruminative episodes that intrude in this panel strongly suggest that all will not be well. There is some wonderful solo playing, not least in the klezmer stylings of the Odense band’s principal clarinet. The movement concludes with a rapid dance in this vein. In the following section, Felice, the composer alludes to the emotional state of a woman “being held emotional hostage by a man who can’t make up his mind”, and while the music is slow and noirish, its thread is tersely punctuated by abrupt stabs from the bass of a piano, while it resolves in a faux-tragic violin solo. It yields to the jazzy, ambiguously upbeat dance of Leni, Josef K’s would-be seductress. This is rapid, uproarious and superbly played. The fourth panel is a mercurial portrait of the central character himself which duly elides into the dark, defining section of the work, The Execution. Ruders’ writing is characteristically colourful and technically masterly. The piano stabs return and presumably reflect upon what has passed. Kafkapriccio (I’m not really convinced by the title) draws some brilliant solo work from the Odense principals and constitutes a tempting trailer for the opera. Maybe it’s not as completely gloomy as I have imagined.

The meat in the sandwich of this disc is Book 2 of Cembal d’Amore, a set of virtuosic studies for harpsichord and piano whose titles tap into the lingua franca of the French baroque harpsichord suite. In the booklet Ruders reveals that the name of the collection, Cembal d’Amore nods to Gottfried Silbermann’s ill-fated attempt in 1721 to build an instrument which combined clavichord and harpsichord. In the tiny Prologue the two protagonists seem to be singing from completely different hymnsheets, illustrating the inherent difficulties of writing music for this particular pair of instruments. But as is often the case with Ruders, things quickly settle; the Allemande that follows is scintillating, elegant, witty, propulsive and attractive - It really couldn’t be by anybody else. A pair of Correntes follow; both seem to distil the spirits of Nancarrow and Ligeti in spiralling, insoluble sound puzzles that might have been conceived by M C Escher.

The fifth piece, Air contains the most affecting music on the disc. It’s three minutes of spare melody and implied greyscale counterpoint that says far more than seems possible given the sparseness of its components. It takes a minute or so to pick something resembling a minuet from the next piece which carries that name. The sixty seconds isn’t wasted though. It’s an auditory hallucination which probably requires far fewer fingers than appear to be involved. The Gigue could be a tiny Rzewskian soundtrack to some documentary about a rural Danish textile-based cottage industry which has somehow survived against the odds. The Epilogue constitutes something of a generic conclusion but still requires care and accuracy from Bridge house favourites Steven Beck (harpsichord) and Susan Grace (piano), aka Quattro Mani.

My first exposure to Ruders music was a quarter century ago – a broadcast of the quasi-minimalist Manhattan Abstraction on CD Review impressed me; a friend’s recommendation of the Vivaldian Violin Concerto No 1 absolutely blew me away. Since then I’ve found his output a little inconsistent but he’s one of those figures one trusts sufficiently to seek out each new work knowing there’s bound to be far more wheat than chaff. As there is most assuredly on Bridge’s handsomely recorded and lovingly played (and annotated) new disc.

Richard Hanlon
Previous review: Stephen Barber

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