Knud Riisager: The Symphonic Edition Vol. 1
02 January 2012
This first volume of Dacapo's Riisager Symphonic Edition contains works composed in his twenties and early thirties, which is to say during the last 10 years or so of the life of his great compatriot, Carl Nielsen. Nielsen is there in the background - the gaiety of his Maskarade Overture, and the not-so-gaiety of his Sinfonia semplice. But so too is a French turn of phrase, unsurprising for a pupil of Roussel and Paul le Flem.
The first of Riisager's five symphonies (1925) steps out confidently with its leaner and fitter view of the symphonic present/future (Hindemith would not be a bad guess for the innocent ear). As this never less than respectably composed piece progresses, it is hard to suppress the suspicion that relaxation is shading into casualness and lack of direction, and that more may have been lost than gained in the search for new directions. Did Riisager throw out the symphonic baby with the philosophical bathwater, like his Swedish near-contemporary Atterberg? Only a longer period of acquaintance and the perspective of later volumes in the series will tell, and those are both prospects I look forward to.
The four pieces collectively intended as a series of 'Danish Pictures' make for lively makeweights. Klods Hans, Comoedie and Fastelavn, all from 1929-30, intrigue by their playful appropriation of some of the most disquieting images of Nielsen's wind concertos and last symphony (for more on the Nielsen connection see Andrew Mellor's excellent online feature - gramophone.co.uk/features/focus/send-in-the-danes). Their brittle neoclassicism is not at all untypical of their times but it is certainly handled with aplomb. The much earlier Overturefor Erasmus Montanus is, initially at least, more soft-edged but soon goes off in quirky directions.
None of these pieces is exactly easy to play, the more so since none is in any orchestra's repertoire (nor, to be realistic, ever likely to be). The Aarhus Symphony Orchestra acquits itself bravely under Bo Holten's firm direction and, as usual from this source, recording quality and documentation are first-rate.