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Dacapo - The National Music Anthology of Denmark

Format:  CD

Catalogue Number:  8.226146

Barcode:  636943614624

Release month:  Aug 2011

Period:  Early 20th Century


Knudåge Riisager: The Symphonic Edition Vol. 1

28 November 2011  Cinemusical (amerikansk blog)
Maestro Steve
4/4 Stars

The Dacapo label is launching a series of recordings bringing to light the music of the Estonian-born Danish composer Knudage Riisager (1897-1974).  Rissager studied in Paris in the 1920s with Albert Roussel and Paul Le Flem and returned to Copenhagen where he worked mostly as a civil servant while pursuing composition.  His music has an amazing breadth of optimism in these early works that in some cases is like a lighter version of Nielsen but with its own distinct voice.

The disc consists of Rissager's first symphony bookended by four shorter orchestral "pictures."  The disc opens with his very first orchestral work, and what would become one of his more popular pieces, the Overture for Erasmus Montanus, Op. 1.  Considered "unplayable" when he first submitted it for performance, it is likely the piece was reworked in spots after his studies.  The violin parts do have some technical challenges that even the Aarhus players seem to struggle with at times but not to the detriment of the music.  Overall it is a rather delightful piece.  The second picture, Klods Hans (Jack the Dullard), Op. 18, features a bit more dissonant writing in what is a quite humorous orchestral tone picture based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale but with no specific program.  The 1929 work is actually a fascinating piece with a sound that is a blend of Honegger and Prokofiev.  The string writing again feels a bit difficult and busy here but the overall effect within the context of the piece.  Wicked string writing at the high end with rapid passagework will be a continual stylistic aspect of Riisager's music in these early pieces.

Riisager's Symphony No. 1, Op. 8 comes from 1925 and shows his studies with Roussel definitely were having an influence.  Though period reviews were mixed and connected the work with Stravinsky (likely because of the syncopated sections), it is Roussel's own symphonies, particularly the second, that seems a more apt comparison.  Riisager uses a three movement structure and plays with expectations of form in a very Gallic modern style that has elements of his personal sound.  Thematic connections between movements also help to find ways to lend cohesion to the work as a whole.  In some respects the piece reflects the period's tendency to the amalgam of musical influences hanging over from the 19th century and the more open and clearer textures of the Neo-Classicists with modern harmonic elements.  It is a work that can feel a bit episodic, especially in its development section in the first movement.  Cadential gestures too tend to take pages from what has gone before.  It is Riisager's intriguing orchestration that begins to shine here as a distinctive style helped by the recordings placing of a later work right before the symphony itself.  One is also struck by the beauty of the lyric writing in the second movement.  The third movement too has its focus on close intervals and interesting rhythmic accents that make it a fascinating and dramatic summary.

After the symphony, two additional brief works follow which turn out to be showpieces for the orchestra.  The fourth Danish picture is the penultimate track here.  Comoedie, Op. 21 (1930) already shows a more assured handling of the orchestra as a virtuoso ensemble and the wind writing are what make the work stand out as a sort of orchestral concerto.  It feels like an extended study of the center of the first symphony's final movement.  The overall sound recalls the music of Les Six but Riisager's own voice is now much stronger.  The final work is Fastelavn, Op. 22 (1930) a work whose carnival title is evident in the dance-like festive atmosphere.  It is a real orchestral showpiece that includes a sly variation on a folk tune and a variety of amazing orchestral sections making for a great conclusion to the disc.  In both these works, rapid string writing is a hallmark as is the many delightful orchestral combinations.  Riisager likes to play with bitonality and lines that bear an almost romantic quality, especially when harmonized in brass.  But he is not afraid of hitting big climaxes with piles of dissonant constructions.  This particular work would make a good introduction to the composer for concert audiences unfamiliar with his music mostly because of the many fun solo ideas spread through the orchestra.

The Aarhus players are definitely committed to these pieces which have a musical language that is unique enough that they must find its common sound together.  Rather than sounding like a pastiche of styles, Bo Holten manages to get at the heart of these works and leads the ensemble in committed performances.  The high string writing bears the brunt of the problematic areas but the results are still quite good.  There is something about the soup of the 1920s musical world that produces intriguing works that sound like nothing that came after while pulling from what came before.  Riisager's music will be of interest to those who enjoy a bit of dissonance with their neo-classical sound and who can admire orchestral writing.  It is not Nielsen, which is a good thing in that its derivations from more French style can be even more appreciated.  As the series progresses, it will be interesting to see how Riisager's style adapts or not to changing tastes and the feedback his work received.  This first volume is easily recommended to the curious and those who appreciate the art of the 1920s.

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