My second excursion into the world of Poul Ruders happened somewhat by chance: with many of his CDs in the current JWR review lineup, I was immediately attracted to this disc due to my imagination wondering just what his take on the famous Paganini Variations (decked out as Piano Concerto No. 3) might be. The measure of any composer is to how he/she can take a theme and develop it into an organic whole.
In this instance, a reworking of the original version for guitar, left the score alone, but interjected a much more fiery solo line by assigning that duty to the piano—and in particular to Anne-Marie McDermott, whose Mozart concerti were seen as a great success here (cross-reference below). The Odense Symfoniorkster once again provided the orchestral backdrop, ably led by a remarkably “tight” ensemble thanks to conductor Benjamin Schwartz.
From the very first measures (theme declaimed by trumpet and woodwind), it was clear that everything following would be a master class in orchestration: those expectations were fully realized. The first entry of the piano was immediately fanciful; soon metallic colourizations and touches of frantic delivery heralded excitement to come in more ways than one. In the big picture, much of the writing was conversational—at times argumentative—between the keyboard and orchestra. Roughly midway, the battle lines yielded to a momentary calm, fuelled by string pedals and radiant harmonic shifts, finally interrupted by wind dissonance and “we’re off” to the next set of pushes and pulls. The upper strings were not pitch-perfect in the stratosphere, but that only added to the tension as scrappiness and singular piano notes soon gave way to ever-so-welcome triplets.
Truly magical was the protagonist moving steadily, carefully forward with extreme range declarations even as the middle ground was all bows, before a taste of unison both ended the section and set the stage for the remaining “storm” to come. A wind-filled chorale, with much pain, had its payoff in a bit of catch-me-if-you-can fun. The theme remerged in a delightful back-and-forth manner, everything building to a powerful conclusion even as the previous darkness ascended to the heavens and one last gasp from the piccolo on a mission.
Cembal d’Amore, Second Book is a marvel of invention, textures and tones. Here, the two protagonists (Steven Beck, harpsichord; Susan Grace, piano)—despite having instruments whose sound production (plucked/hammered) couldn’t be more different—frequently mange to give the impression that there is only one instrument being played. Somewhere, Gottfried Silbermann—master keyboard builder—is smiling.
The Prologue, bursting with energy from both performers, artfully paves the way for all that follows with rising fragments that will make many returns along with bantered repeated notes that add a great sense of fun.
A wide-ranging conversation fuels the Allemande, at times amiable, intense even as bits of sauciness produce musical exclamation marks. The harpsichord enters into a circular near-cantus firmus, which is well punctuated by the piano. Long-short balance keeps the ear engaged even as a meeting of the minds is realized.
Corrente I is the most étude-like movement of the suite, overflowing with zesty rises and reaches that impressively fall just a nickel short of frantic. Grace and Beck readily jump all hurdles with deceptive ease, combining for a result that is nothing short of riveting.
Corrente II might well have been named Corrente Ia, continuing the overall soundscape of its predecessor, albeit largely in the upper registers.
The oasis of this set, Air, features the marvellously declaimed melody from the harpsichord that would have most guitarists wondering just how they might achieve the same effect. The piano takes on the role of discreet accompanist, often providing an arid bass that deftly keeps the motion moving steadily forward. The peals of Big Ben almost make an appearance; hints of Eastern influence are as welcome as the first bloom of spring flowers. A few twinges of dissonance finally succumb to a finish that artfully ascends to the heavens.
In the Menuet, it’s the harpsichord’s turn to be dry. A few “gnats” add spice as the decidedly contrasting instruments, which gradually find themselves on the same plane after a few moments of catch up.
Raucous power is the hallmark of the Gigue, giving it a very cinematic feel of an extended chase. Further virtuosity is unleashed as the double bar looms into sight.
To conclude, this Epilogue is a succinct, deft summation of all that came before. The music builds dramatically then morphs into an explosive finish, which is finally put to rest in the depths.
Ruders has demonstrated impressive mastery of “merging” these disparate instruments into a cohesive whole and also a thorough understanding of “less is more”. Cheers to the arrival of the Third Book.
This remarkable disc concludes with a greatly enhanced (from 14 players to full orchestra) suite, Kafkapriccio, Five Paraphrases on the opera, Kafka’s Trial. Devotees of the Bohemian writer’s novels will savour every measure and try to find their way to experience the complete opera. Once again filling the ear with a riot of colour, Ruders’ finest moments come in The Execution, where a poignant dialogue between trumpet and English horn, served up over a bed of calmo strings, leaves no doubt as to the outcome. Conductor Andreas Delfs crafts a most sympathetic reading indeed. JWR