POUL RUDERS EDITION, Vol. 15 / RUDERS: Piano Concerto No. 3, “Paganini Variations.”+# Cembal d’Amore, 2nd Book.* Kafkapriccio+ / #Anne-Marie McDermott, pno; *Quattro Mani: Steven Beck, hpd; Susan Grace, pno; +Odensesymfoniorkester; #Benjamin Shwartz Andreas Delfs, cond / Bridge 9531
This is Vol. 15 in the Bridge series devoted to Danish composer Poul Ruders, and I was especially delighted to see Anne-Marie McDermott on this disc. She has been one of my favorite American pianists since I saw her in concert several times in the early 2000s as accompanist for Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and on this recording some of the excitement she generates in live performances has been transferred to the record.
The “Paganini Concerto,” the notes tell us, began life as his second guitar concerto written for David Starobin, co-owner of Bridge Records, but to be honest I think it works even better as a piano concerto. Interestingly, it was Starobin himself who urged Ruders to write the piano version for McDermott. The music is almost wildly creative, breaking up Paganini’s iconic 24th Caprice and scattering its remains hither and yon as the music is thoroughly recomposed. And, as I said earlier, McDermott really seems to relish its dynamism and energy, turning out what is, to my ears, her most exciting recorded performance. (I hope she had her beloved double-strength Brazilian coffee between takes!)
The imaginative quality of this concerto almost beggars description. Ruders takes the music into some very dark corners, and although it is in one continuous movement lasting a little over 18 minutes, there are three clearly defined sections. In the slow middle section all is calm, with the strings sustaining “footballs” (whole notes) while the piano gently meanders around them until, suddenly, at the 8:47 mark, we suddenly hear edgy winds and brass enter, the tempo increases, and we suddenly jump further away from Paganini and into Ruders’ own personal musical rabbit-hole, though if one listens carefully enough one can hear the scattered remnants of Paganini’s theme here and there—just not in any continuous or sustained sense. By 11:26 the remaining snippets of the theme are tossed into the mixture like so many pieces of confetti, almost mocking the original tune. The imaginatively mixed, atonal wind and brass chords at the 14-minute mark almost steer us completely away from Paganini. McDermott suddenly re-enters, playing uptempo passages unrelated to the original theme, when suddenly swirling strings begin playing it again as if to remind us where we started and suggest where we should end. The piano then picks it up, playing wildly rhythmic permutations of the theme while the orchestra goes out on a tangent—then it just ends, in the middle of nowhere. I really enjoyed this piece, both its conception and its execution.
As wild as this is, however, the harpsichord-piano duet Cembal d’Amore is even wilder. I’ve complained recently about so many younger composers writing scores that seem to be edgy just for the sake of being edgy, without any coherence or structure. Ruders gives us an edgy piece here that has structure, and the difference is discernible. Ruders has fun in the “Allemande” by having the two keyboard players “shoot” what sound like isolated little notes into the air on their instruments’ upper registers while most of the music remains down in the center of the keyboard. It’s a very whimsical effect. By contrast, I found the two “Correntes” to be comprised of nothing but upward-rising scale passages played end on end, very virtuosic but somewhat empty rhetoric. Ruders returns to more interesting music in the “Air,” a very slow piece on which the harpsichordist plays with the plectrum setting on the pedal. Once again the music is based upon scales, but by slowing it down and reducing both the range and the number of notes he was able to create a very effective piece in which space is as much a part of the compositions as the notes themselves. The “Menuet” returns us to upward-rising scales, but the kicker here is that the 3/4 time is made to sound like 4/4 by means of beat displacements. The “Gigue” is a fast, dark piece, consisting largely of crushed chords played in a syncopated style reminiscent of part of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka. I liked parts of this suite, but felt that Ruders got too hung up on trying to write “virtuosic” music at the expense of actually saying something.
But then we arrive at Kafkapriccio, surely one of Ruders’ wildest, most innovative pieces. Most surprisingly, it begins with a highly syncopated, fast-moving orchestral passage that sounded for all the world like a modern jazz piece, but quickly morphs into various discrete sections that somehow manage to pull themselves together thematically. This piece uses five paraphrases from Ruders’ opera, Kafka’s Trial. Someday I’d like to see and hear a performance of this, although from a strictly musical standpoint it has nothing at all to do with Kafka or his era. Parts of it sound like Latin dance music, another section (around the 4:14 mark) like something that Aaron Copland might have written, and the almost vaudeville-sounding trombone smears have a mocking quality about them. I would say, rather, that this score has a wild sense of humor about it that is as far removed from anything having to do with Kafka as Stravinsky’s Circus Parade would relate to the Nuremberg trials. Even the slow section, atmospheric as it is, is simply too modern in its musical concept to relate to Kafka’s era, when “modern” music meant something entirely different, something more like Hindemith. Right in the middle of the third section, “Leni,” Ruders has various instruments interact with each other in hocket style, leading to an almost circus-parade sort of music. Very witty and amusing, something in the early George Antheil style, but its relationship to Kafka’s The Trial eludes me. (As I say, I’d have to actually see a production of the opera to understand how all this music fits in.)
As a suite, however, Kafkapriccio is clearly a fascinating and extremely well-written work. It is full of surprises, lacks nothing in terms of orchestral color or imagination, and proceeds with an enigmatic but rigorous sense of structure. Again, this is a piece that I liked very, very much.
An outstanding album, then, for the first and third pieces with some interesting moments in the second. All of the music is superbly played by the forces involved and very well-recorded.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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