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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

02 January 2012  International Record Review
Martin Anderson

Knudage Riisager (1897-1974) is one of a number of fine Danish composers overshadowed in the general consciousness by Nielsen; only Holmboe and, more recently, Norgard and Ruders have managed to carve out a distinctive profile of their own. Rued Langgaard, of course, ascribed the oversight to Nielsen himself rather than the sheer strength of his creative personality and wrote a cantata Carl Nielsen vor store mester (' Carl Nielsen our Great Master'), the sarcastic title of which also formed the text - 'to be repeated for all eternity', as the score instructs . Though Langgaard's music is now widely recorded and admired, that hasn't really helped him break into the concert halls, despite the admirable inclusion of his visionary Sfaerensmusik ('Music of the Spheres') at the 2010 Proms (well done, Roger Wright!). Langgaard's music has a lot of qualities, but charm and a sense of fun don't count among them. Riisager, by contrast, has both in buckets and now that his music is also beginning to receive attention on CD - not least on two recent Dacapo releases of orchestral music (6.220527 and 6.220584, the latter a reissue of a 1998 original) - perhaps concert promoters will at last take a punt on him; audiences would love it. That this CD is billed as 'The Symphonic Edition, Volume l ' is good news.

After studying in Denmark (politics and then music), in 1923 Riisager went to Paris to sit at the feet of Albert Roussel and Paul Le Flem, with audible results in his music audible on this CD , too. Thereafter he made his name chiefly as a composer of ballets and his living as a civil servant: he spent the 11 years before his retirement in 1950 (which cleared the way for further composing) as a departmental head in the Ministry of Finance. The Overture for Erasmus Montanus (c.1918-20) - subtitled 'Danish Pictures' No. 1 - shows remarkable craftsmanship for a first opus and functions as a quasi - symphonic poem: opening with a touching nature idyll, it progresses through a scherzo, love scene and mock courtly dance before pulling the earlier material together in a spirited coda. A trombone whoop in the piece flags up an early indication of one of Riisager's many points of contact with Malcolm Arnold: a naughty-boy glee in undermining authority. The Nordic tone is subdued but present all the same; and it's obvious that textural clarity was a feature of his orchestral writing before he went to Paris. Klods Hans (translated here as 'Jack the Dullard'; 1929) - 'Danish Pictures' No. 2 - is another quasi-symphonic poem, although its structure is less easy to describe, since it seems to derive most of its fun from knocking things into the air - no sooner does Riisager lay down one tune than another bashes into it in a kind of jolly freefor- all. It, too, has a fondness for sending up serious thought (Till Eulenspiepels also comes to mind) and yet there's also a heraldic strain that seems entirely sincere, rather reminding me of Poul Schierbeck's overture to his opera Fete qalante (written two years later).

A symphony would be better behaved, both formally and in mood, you'd think, but Riisager's First (1925) - three movements, 25 minutes in length - has a light-hearted cast, with the first movement a kind of vernal fantasy, the second a lazy, summer-night rhapsody with Nielsenesque string writing, and the third an assemblage of tumbling dances - one sees why he was such a successful ballet composer. It will be interesting to discover what the later symphonies in this series are like (there are five of them) - but he seems to have started out with a pretty relaxed view of what the form required: the outer movements lack the concentration one might reasonably expect of a symphony. That's another point of similarity with Arnold: the pressing of high-quality dance music into service in not very symphonic symphonies.

Two more 'Danish Pictures' (a label Riisager later dropped) complete the CD, each around the ten-minute mark: No. 4, Comoedie (1930), is a sort of Maskarade-meets-Petrushka balletic ramble, and No. 3, Fastelavn (' Carnival'; 1930), offers the same sort of knock-about fun - although I found that, after an hour of very similar music, after repeated listening diminishing returns soon began to set it . Take a break mid-CD.

Bo Holten and the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra produce what seem to be entirely idiomatic readings, with the rhythms fully sprung; the intricate details of Riisager's often headlong writing obviously holding no fears for the musicians, whose principals seem to relish the many solo spots the music affords them. The recording is clear, capturing the full range of the orchestra - and Riisager is indeed active from top to bottom.

Not unalloyed gold, then, but very good fun, with occasional depths (the slow movement of the Symphony eventually reveals some strength of feeling), and some roller-coaster handling of the orchestra. Worth your time.

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