Ruders, P.: Concerto in Pieces / Violin Concerto No. 1 / Monodrama
17 May 2012
American Record Guide
Poul Ruders (b. 1949) is best at full-scale orchestral works where he can play with a broader musical palette, even if what he plays with tends more toward the antics of postmodernism than the flourishes of neo-romanticism. I much prefer the latter instincts in him over the former. Here we have two examples of the latter and one example of the former; both underline the man’s strengths and his weaknesses (well, let’s say indulgences).
His brilliant Concerto in Pieces (1994–95) is subtitled “Purcell Variations for Orchestra” and came from a commission from the folks at the Last Night of the Proms for a sequel of sorts for Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. The composer still wonders why they chose him to do this. He selected a theme from Purcell that in no way resembles the themes Benjamin Britten played with - the Witches’ Chorus from Act II of Dido and Aeneas. It was a huge success, and you can hear why. Ruders is able to maintain an thematic air reminiscent of Britten while nonetheless exploring every aspect of an orchestra in his own unique way. This is done through tasteful insertions of percussive moments (chimes, celeste, etc.) and odd balancing strategies such as the use of medieval “hoqueting” where the notes of the main theme are bounced back and forth across the orchestra, from one instrument or set of instruments to another. A stunning achievement.
The Violin Concerto (1981) is almost unrecognizable as a work of this composer. It’s a solidly romantic (post-romantic?) work that harks back to bits of Vivaldi (his Four Seasons) with touches of Schubert. It’s a nearly perfect follow-up to the Concerto in Pieces; it almost seems like a coda to that piece. Both works seem gentle, playful, and yet both are invested with Ruders’s grasp of the way musical ideas can be molded by moving in and out of standard harmonic structures. Both should bring new fans to Ruders.
His Monodrama (1998) is subtitled “Drama Trilogy II for Percussion and Orchestra”. I’ve heard several pieces like this over the years, and they are pretty much the same. To quote the composer’s own words, this work is “pretty grim”. It is bleak, angry, and assertive. I’d add indulgent. It’s also quite long, at 30 minutes. There’s a lot of banging, crashing, and knocking around; and it uses up all of its creative ideas in the first seven or eight minutes.
But the first two works should delight just about anyone interested in the best of contemporary Scandinavian music.