Volume six of this series featuring the music of Poul Ruders is as satisfying compositionally as it is from the choice of performers.
Knowing just who would be performing as the inaugural soloist is a composer’s dream come true. With pianist Vassily Primakov doing the honours, there are no limitations technically, emotionally or artistically. Coupled with conductor Thomas Søndergård leading the ever-attentive Norwegian Radio Orchestra, the chance for greatness increases considerably. The icing on this delectable cake comes via the extraordinary skills of recording engineers Morten Hermansen and Per Arne Flø who manage to keep the orchestral sound ideally present without losing or overwhelming the ear as the work shifts around the twin notions of piano as instigator or especial member of the percussion section.
In his second concerto, Ruders creates a world that overflows with personality be it his own, his protagonist’s or further “unseen artist.” The key to everything is the “Semplice,” where Primakov immediately slips into his inner child forging a beautifully revealed “hesitato”—tempered with bits of dissonance and consonance to add to the initial, wanted uncertainty—rendering of the chant-like line that simultaneously sets the stage for musical growth and psychological development. Confidence begins to seep in as the ethereal harp then purposely dry violin start shadowing the journey. As the strings open up in turn, all seems well—even a touch of whimsy confirms the transition to a more resilient self. Suddenly, there’s an unrelenting monster trying desperately to undo the progress-to-date, but even after grotesquely mocking trombones have their say, the piano prevails. Further attempts are made (one wind-filled intervention just slightly marred when the clarinet couldn’t fully wait his turn) but all are in vain. The power of ongoing, melodic support trumps the orchestral bullies everywhere.
The quietude of the opening “Fluente,” with its étude-like lines and distant hues, prepares the way for the middle frame’s transformation, but not before copious amounts of anger and anguish (featuring a few broad strokes that raise the spectre of Prokofiev’s orchestration skill, biting low strings and some brutal “snaps”) seem to scare themselves into calm. Left to his own devices in a quasi-cadenza, Primakov meets every challenge head on, soaring throughout the keyboard’s range before drawing the orchestra back into the fray. The aurally gleaming French horns lead the charge, calling for the “nasty” brass to lend their snarling voices only to be outdistanced as the intrepid soloist offers a thin, arid response that readily slips the noose of assimilation before a touch of exotic percussion adds to the marvellous escape into the night.
The race appears to resume in the closing “Avanti risoluto” where both Primakov and Søndergård engage in a somewhat raucous-and-roll version of “Catch me if you can.” After a set of welcome “big” triplets (and one last gasp of mockery from the brass), the music builds into a riot of exhilaration—fuelled particularly by both the power and dexterity of Primakov’s left hand. It doesn’t require much imagination now to predict who will have the last word in one of the most thoughtful, vibrant additions to the piano concerto repertoire in a long time.
Written six years earlier, Bel Canto more than lives up to its name thanks to Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen’s impassioned interpretation of this essay for solo violin. He captures the haunting mood and climbs the rising lines with conviction and surety (if only the microphone had been a tad further away so as to allow fuller enjoyment of the fluid legato without the “mechanical” tint as the bow nears the bridge). The adieu is especially memorable: the final left-hand pizzicato is perfectly executed in concert with the fading phrase.
The most extended composition on the disc (also written in 2004) features the intriguing combination of accordion (superbly rendered by Mikko Luoma who manages the frequent long-held, true unisons with deceptive ease) and string quartet (the iO String Quartet is more than up to the task of crafting/simmering this multi-flavoured artistic soup from the heavens above).
Its nine sections have bits of program or allusions to writers (starting with T.H. Huxley who might well be astonished at the ferocity created in the “Introduction”), scientists (Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species informs “One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue”—just the antidote to the opening frame’s frenzy) playwrights (“Thernos”—after Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle”—the centrepiece of the set is a truly fantastic take on the ability of a single beam of light to battle the depths of despair) and novelist (“Heart of Darkness’” growling, menacing march of evil takes no prisoners and lets Luoma loose in the lowest domain of his—in this instance—deliberately unforgiving instrument).
With so many images conjured up from the music and the selected texts, here’s a work that ought to find a cinematic or choreographic (or both!) setting as soon as is practical. JWR