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Works for Solo Cello
Per NØRGÅRD (b. 1932)
Sonata No 1 (1951-53) [16;23]
Sonata No 2, In due tempi (1953-54/1980) [19:42]
Sonata No 3, “What - is the Word” (1999) [7:30]
Poul RUDERS (b. 1949)
Bravourstudien (L’Homme Armé Variations) (1976) [18:46]
Wilhelmina Smith (cello)
rec June 2019, Sundin Music Hall, Hamline University, St Paul, USA
ONDINE ODE1381-2 [62:21]

Here’s a neat mix of solo contemporary cello music by Nørgård and Ruders, a Danish compendium to set alongside Wilhelmina Smith’s last outing for Ondine, a by turns bracing and beautiful Finnish equivalent which paired Saariaho and Salonen (ODE 1294-2). The American cellist’s technical acumen and expressive intensity well suits all the music here. Søren Schauser’s dryly amusing note opens with a couple of pithy paragraphs which ruminate upon Danish history and the national self-concept, before brief and digestible analyses of the four works that comprise the programme. Tracing the musical lineage from which both composers descended (with Nielsen and Holmboe at the top of the tree) it is unsurprising that metamorphosis and variation are central to the conceit of the disc. I intend no criticism of Ruders whatsoever in pointing out that Nørgård’s later music has frequently seemed more challenging and contemporary than his compatriot’s; by the time Ruders was beginning to make his name the European reaction to modernism was of course in full flow and arguably this shift more palpably impacted upon the work of the younger composer. Listening for the first time to this piece from Ruders’ twenties created a most positive impression, however.

Nørgård was only 19 when he composed his first sonata, and the moody four note cell from which the first movement (and ultimately the entire sonata) evolves seems to be a distant cousin of Shostakovitch’s signature DSCH motto. What follows is a perfectly accomplished essay for the solo instrument, although to listeners familiar with this composer’s ‘infinity series’ derived work it may seem rather dry and conventional. The tune at the heart of the central Tranquillo movement seems to convey a similarly Russian spirit; by the time we hit the bright and breezy Allegro con brio which concludes this taut sonata we are steering toward the sonic terrain occupied by Britten’s cello suites (which were composed more than a decade later). Of course the cello thread connecting these two composers was Mstislav Rostropovich – and I mean it is a compliment to Wilhelmina Smith that the intensity of her playing and care in her shaping of the thorny material in this early work recalls the great Russian. As for the sonata itself, it demonstrates that although Nørgård already had a remarkably idiomatic understanding of the cello in his youth, he was some way from the finished article as a composer. This first sonata strikes me as competent if a little arid.

But as we know Nørgård developed quickly; a couple of years later he would be embarking on his first symphony, the icy Sinfonia Austera in which his music assumes a more identifiably scandi-noir sensibility; around the same time he composed the Solo intimo, a stand-alone second sonata, which he would extend a quarter of a century later by adding the Solo in scena as kind of ‘yang’ to the earlier movement’s ‘yin’. The brooding intensity that permeates the first symphony is there in spades in the Solo Intimo and for me there’s little to choose between Smith on the new disc and Morton Zeuthen on Dacapo (8.224007); Zeuthen’s offers slightly more in the way of absorption and engagement perhaps but the naturalness and presence of the fine Ondine recording provides ample compensation. The final version of the second sonata constitutes a perfect bridge between early and late Nørgård, and Smith’s approach to the Solo in Scena strikes me as somewhat episodic and analytical compared to Zeuthen who, in a generally swifter reading, more aptly captures the inexorable flow of this infinity series infused piece.

Both Nørgård’s Beckett-inspired third sonata What – is the Word! and Ruders’ Bravourstudien (based upon the original L’Homme Armé) melody also feature on another Morton Zeuthen disc ‘L’homme Armé - Works for solo cello’ – another Dacapo disc (8.226007) which provides some competition for the new issue and which includes works by other contemporary Danes; in any case I must confess I have not heard it. Nørgård’s most recent third sonata for solo cello turns out to be both aphoristic and enigmatic. – It blends two broadly articulated outer ‘Prayers’ which share a theme with a more diffuse central movement (labelled ‘Outcry’) which is more overtly tinged with the fluvial characteristics of Nørgård’s mature music. Smith gives a fervent account of the outer movements which contrasts with a colourful, lithe reading of the middle panel. Like much of this composer’s chamber and instrumental output, less proves to be more; the brevity of the third quartet is no barrier to its concentrated power. It’s an attractive if gnomic proposition; not unlike the plays of the Irishman who was its initial inspiration.

Poul Ruders’ Bravourstudien of 1976 marked the conclusion of his first creative phase; in due course like his older compatriot he would embrace a new system characterised by subtle, slow-burning metamorphosis, in his case based on change-ringing. After the strident, in-your-face Overture which leaves one in little doubt as to the provenance of the theme, Wilhelmina Smith seizes the opportunities presented by Ruders’ to provide a masterclass of poise, dexterity, drama and colour across nine imaginatively conceived and contrasted variations in which the composer makes free with every facet of cello technique. She even incorporates some enigmatic whistling (in the central intermezzo) and vocal harmonies (in the following fantasia) into the mix. The Bravourstudien encompasses the wild and whimsical, the witty and even the winsome; in characteristic Ruders style the source material for the work, the original L’Homme Armé tune is only revealed in its unadorned form at the last.

An hour’s worth of contemporary Danish work for solo cello may seem a daunting prospect for the average listener; if it is something of a niche genre it’s one to which Wilhelmina Smith has submitted with open-hearted enthusiasm and impressive technical finesse. None of the music on here will frighten the horses, all the pieces are recorded with spellbinding immediacy.

Richard Hanlon

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