Ruders’ Classical Accordion Music


RUDERS: Sound and Simplicity.* Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean: VII. Dream Catcher (arr. Mogensen) / Bjarke Mogensen, acc; *Odense Symphony Orch.; Sebastian Lang-Lessing, cond / Symphony No. 3, “Dream Catcher” / Odense Symphony Orch.; Scott Yoo, cond / Bridge 9553

Bridge continues its excellent Poul Ruders series with this new release—well, half-new, anyway. This performance of Ruders’ Third Symphony was previously released on Bridge 9382, but it fits in here because it follows Mogensen’s 4 ½-minute performance of Dream Catcher, which the symphony is based on.

I’ve had nothing but compliments for anything I’ve ever heard on CD by Ruders—his music is not only consistently excellent but varied in scope and style—and the opener, Sound and Simplicity, is no exception. But is it just my imagination that over the past two to three years there seems to be a flurry of modern classical works written for the accordion, once considered almost a “toy” instrument? Granted, it’s capable of a lot more than the harmonica or autoharp since it has two opposing keyboards, and here Mogensen, a real virtuoso of the instrument, is playing the original European version which has buttons on both sides of the bellows and not the piano keyboard developed by Pietro Deiro, Sr. in the early 20th century.

Sound and Simplicity, subtitled “Seven Pillars of Music for Accordion and Symphony Orchestra,” was written in 2018. As the composer puts it in the liner notes, “four out of the seven movements are very simple (as in the absence of any structural and metric complexity), yet somehow the music makes a strong emotional impact, as most of Ruders’ music does.  Plus there’s something in the way he uses the accordion, almost as a mini-orchestra within the orchestra (one might almost say like a Sinfonia concert ante) that surprises and delights the listener from start to finish. In fact much (but not all) of the writing for the accordion is not so much technically difficult as just odd in meter and atmospheric, but there’s something magical in the way Ruders sometimes combines the high register of the accordion with the high winds and strings of the orchestra to create a sort of combined sound. As in the case of most amorphic music, a technical description is difficult without a score to consult, but this is clearly an outstanding piece. The fourth section, titled “Smoke” finds the soloist playing some very atonal passages with a “smeared” sound (something the accordion does very well, since it is a “soft” instrument and not one with a percussive ring) and these, too, are eventually blended into the orchestral texture.

When I say that Mogensen is playing the European version of the accordion, one should bear in mind that this model is closer related to the bandonéon and concertina. This means that although the sound produced using buttons in the right hand sounds similar to the piano accordion invented by Deiro, it is not entirely identical. It has a more “European” sound, a trifle bit reedier and not quite as rich as the American (and nowadays, Polish) piano accordions which are far more common. It’s a subtle difference but one to keep in mind when listening to this recording. The piano keyboard allows the player to make a bit of a harder attack and, with space between the keys (if you look closely, you’ll notice that there are no real spaces between the buttons of Mogensen’s instrument), more air comes out of the bellows with each push as you play. I know that I’m probably talking gibberish to the average reader, but anyone who has played both kinds of accordions will know what I mean.

In my mind, Ruders not only understands the technical limitations of the accordion (coordinating the two hands, for instance, is much more difficult than on a piano because one must always manipulate the bellows) but also the timbral qualities of the instrument, which unfortunately are a bit strange and very un-classical in nature. This is what makes Sounds and Simplicity so effective.

In the solo version of Dream Catcher, Mogensen has made his own solo accordion arrangement of Part VII of Ruders’ Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean. It’s an interesting piece which he plays well, but taken out of the context of the suite I don’t think it works well as a stand-alone piece.

The Dream Catcher symphony, however, is a powerful, monumental piece, one of Ruders’ finest, opening with a powerful motif played by trombones and violins over rumbling tympani. This then quiets down in volume but remains ominous-sounding as the strings play overlaid chords. The harmony then slowly pulls itself apart, becoming even more atonal as it does so. The basses grumble impatiently here and there as the violins creep ever upward. In general layout and form, the music is close to Sounds and Simplicity but, being an orchestrated symphony, more texturally complex; it’s also more ominous-sounding due to the edgy conflicting harmony.

In the linked second movement, a “Scherzo,” Ruders unleashes a torrent of frightening sounds, led by the horns and trombones against the strings. This scherzo makes Mahler’s most sinister sound cheerful. My sole complaint of this movement is that it went on too long (11 minutes) and tended to sound much the same as it progressed, although towards the end the storm subsides and we get calmer, less neurotic music, coming to a standstill at the end.

This is a very interesting CD and one that all Ruders fans should hear.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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