Knudage Riisager: Orchestral Works / Hardenberger, Dausgaard

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RIISAGER Slaraffenland (Fools’ Paradise): Suites 1 and 2. Tolv med Posten (12 by the Mail): 6 Dances. Concertino for Trumpet and Strings. Darduse: Suite Thomas Dausgaard, cond; Hakan Hardenberger (tpt); Ars Nova Copenhagen; Helsingborg SO DACAPO 6.220584 (SACD: 72:35)

Knudåge Riisager is certainly not the only composer who had a career in an unrelated field. He is more unusual in the recognition that he received, for his compositions and his musical advocacy, during his lifetime. After working as a civil servant for much of his life—he was educated in political science and was, in the last decade of his career, a department head in the Danish Ministry of Finance—he retired in 1950 and turned his full attention to music. This was not where it started, though, as his most productive years as a composer—and the ones chronicled here—paralleled his government career. He began his music education as a teenager. Then, before beginning his office job, he took a study trip to Paris, became a pupil of Albert Roussel—himself a latecomer to music—and Paul Le Flem, fell under the influence of Les Six, and experienced the new music of Prokofiev, Honegger, Bartók, and Stravinsky. He returned to successfully champion new music—his own and other’s— in Nielsen-besotted Denmark, achieving what near-contemporary Rued Langgaard had failed to do during the same period. Of course, Riisanger had charm and a sense of humor, and wrote beautifully crafted and easily appreciated neoclassical works inspired by his French mentors and Russian muses. Such was his success that in 1937 he was named the chairman of the Association of Danish Composers, a position he held for 25 years. In 1956 he began an 11-year tenure as director of the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen. He died in 1974, a revered and popular artist.

I’m not quite sure what all of this research, and a passing familiarity with the Trumpet Concertino, led me to expect, aside from formality and clarity of texture mixed with, perhaps, some French nonchalance. I was not prepared for the first three ballet suites on this release. There is an appealing surface artlessness to the Fool’s Paradise suites and the six dances from Twelve By the Mail that suggests, in their hidden sophistication, the musical revels of Les Six. They are otherwise reminiscent of English light music of the period. Riisager’s orchestrations are uniformly brilliant, his lovely melodies charming or nostalgic. Their obvious popular appeal—almost movie score-like at times—is spiced with some piquant, though subtly applied, dissonances and occasional forays into polytonality. It is all very pleasant, generally bright and cheery, though perhaps best taken in smaller doses to prevent overdose.

The Trumpet Concertino is a more substantial work, very much influenced by Stravinsky’s neoclassical style, though with little of the Russian composer’s occasionally chilly perfection. The opening and closing movements are, in fact, decidedly quirky, almost a parody of a classical concerto. The central movement is notable, however, for a depth of feeling unique among the works on this disc, though the first movement of the suite from Darduse comes close. In this latter piece, one hears the influence of Roussel’s tutelage most clearly, and more than a bit of the Impressionism that his teacher had eventually rejected. Thereafter, we are back to the lighter music, depicting cock fights and wedding processions. What sets this suite apart is the darker orchestral palette, more dissonant language—though still relatively mild—and the innovative use of chorus. The voices are used to suggest the violent wind of a Grofé-like dust storm (uncharacteristically forbidding, though all, including the chorus, ends peacefully) and the singing of the participants in the folk-inspired Women’s Dance.

Paul Snook welcomed this release in these pages ( Fanfare 21:6) in its 1998 CD incarnation. This SACD rerelease restores it to the catalog. While I cannot say I am quite as enthusiastic as my colleague—he included it on his Want List for that year—I certainly enjoyed the disc. Thomas Dausgaard and his fine Swedish orchestra are eloquent advocates. Håkan Hardenberger is luxury casting for the not terribly challenging trumpet solo, as is the superlative Ars Nova Copenhagen (as it is now known) in the choral segments. The sound is very fine in stereo, though a quick check of the multichannel layer reveals little information in the rear. Those who missed this on the first go-around will be pleased, as will students of Danish music, and fans of well-made lighter music.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 6220584

  • UPC: 747313158461

  • Label: Dacapo

  • Composer: Knudage Riisager

  • Conductor: Thomas Dausgaard

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Håkan Hardenberger