Ruders: Fairytale, De Profundis, Etc / Solyom, Adès, Et Al

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Bridge has the admirable philosophy of concentrating on a few composers in which the label believes, and then issuing a series of discs that begin to give us listeners a sense of the scope of their work. It’s an invaluable service, which one could only wish were more widely imitated. Not only does the label support such obvious masters as Carter and Crumb, but the Dane Poul Ruders (b. 1949) is an instance of its taking a chance on a younger composer just hitting his prime. The works on this program come from three different points in the composer’s career. The Piano Sonata No. 2 is the earliest (1982); De Profundis dates from 1990; and the two orchestral works are the most recent, with Concerto in Pieces composed in 1994–95 (and one of Ruders’s biggest “hits”), and Fairytale in 1999.

The sonata is a brilliant work in four movements, lasting 25 minutes. It comes from the period when Ruders had just found his voice, which combined the astringent spikiness of modernist gesture with a more cyclic flow and a “pitch-centricity” suggestive of minimalism. Like his compatriot Per Nørgaard, Ruders found ways to spin out his music so that it seemed to be constantly regenerating itself (though the models he chose to follow had more to do with change-ringing than Nørgaard’s “infinity series”). As a result, the music moves from a dark, more dissonant and taut world towards ever-greater radiance. If I think of a point of comparison, it might be the Copland Piano Variations, though far more expansive in its scale. The pianist, in a live performance from the Aldeburgh festival, is none other than Thomas Adès, the great young hope of English music, who plays this very difficult music with bravura. One hears a tiny bit of strain in the rendition, especially in the climax of the first movement, but overall I find myself even more open to Adès’s own compositions on the basis of his obviously overwhelming musicianship. This recording is a rare instance of that wonderful thing, when one major artist takes the time and effort to devote himself to the work of another.

De Profundis is scored for two pianos and percussion. It’s conceit is simple: a slow and inevitable rise from low to high in every manner—from bass to treble register, from spare to prolix texture, from slow to fast tempo, from dark to blinding color. Ruders handles the task with a great sense of dramatic pacing. Of course, the progression sounds similar to what I described above in the sonata, but here it is far more continuous in its transformations (though from a different Scandinavian country, Ruders seems to have learned a lot from Sibelius).

The two orchestral works are colorful and occasional. Fairytale was commissioned by the Nordic youth orchestra that performs it here (stunningly). It is non-stop, ostinato-driven, breathless. The Concerto in Pieces was commissioned as a double tribute, to both the tercentennial of Purcell’s birth and the 50th anniversary of the Britten Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra. The idea was to create a modern analogue to the Britten, and as such, it had to be an incredibly intimidating commission, perhaps even more so for a foreigner. But Ruders seems to have relished the challenge. The work exudes a sense of athletic exuberance, a delight in discovering new ways to tweak its source (a different Purcell piece than Britten’s choice, by the way), and a constant pleasure in sonic and structural invention. While all the orchestral sections get a full workout, the music makes its point more from distinctive color-combinations than exposure of separate choirs. Tuba, muted trumpet, harp, and saxophone get extended solos in different variations. And one hears a very strong Sibelian reference in the horns in the final variation.

In the end, this is an extremely successful release, and one can’t help but be impressed with Ruders’s mastery of whatever medium he puts his mind to. Having said that, I must close with one reservation. The recent works, despite their confidence and technical bravura, somehow feel a little hollow in comparison to the composer’s earlier pieces. To take one example, his orchestral piece from 1982, Manhattan Abstraction, is absolutely thrilling and overwhelming in its energy, but there’s also something profound there, a linkage between the sonically brilliant surface and a rigorously logical architecture. Of course, these newer orchestral pieces are lighter by virtue of their commissioning circumstances, so I don’t want to rush to a judgement based solely on them. I was sensing this same unease in my review of the previous release in this series (Fanfare 26:6). Indeed, it may be that Ruders’s imagination has moved more into the world of music drama and these instrumental works are partaking thereof, relinquishing that more Germanic devotion to the transcendentally abstract. I said in that earlier review I probably needed to hear the recording of his opera The Handmaid’s Tale, and I’m ashamed to say I still haven’t. This review makes it particularly obvious I have to do so.

But this more general critique doesn’t take away from the worth of this release, which is recommended, nor from my admiration and encouragement to Bridge to stay their course and their continued advocacy of composers in whose mastery they trust.

Robert Carl, FANFARE

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: BCD9143

  • UPC: 090404914324

  • Label: Bridge Records

  • Composer: Poul Ruders

  • Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis, Stefan Solyom

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: BBC Symphony Orchestra, Orkester Norden, Quattro Mani

  • Performer: David Colson, Thomas Adès