Knudåge Riisager: The Symphonic Edition Vol. 2
01 October 2013
International Record Review
William HedleyKnudager Riisager studied composition in his native Denmark and in France
, but became a senior civil servant who composed in his spare time. Those who want to know more should buy thi s exce llent disc and re ad the long and informative booklet note by Claus Rollum-Larsen .
It's tricky to know what to expect from a piece entitled T-DOXC, and the bracketed description - 'poeme mecanique' - is pretty misleading too. This celebration of a newly developed aircraft has little in common with Honegger's or Villa-Lobos's trains, nor, more recently, with John Adams's unspecified 'Fast Machine' . The work enshrines the composer's reaction to the beauty of manned flight, and the technological advances that made it possible. It is music of wonder and exultation, full of immediately attractive sounds.
The tentative opening of the Second Symphony could almost be by Sibelius, with five notes of a rising scale played by the bassoon that prove to be important throughout the work. An introduction runs for a good three minutes before we are treated to a bewildering range of incident, the listener taken up unknown streets and down unfamiliar alleys without having much idea of where it is all leading. This is unsettling, but such is the music 's character and purpose that we trust the composer and prefer to tag along. The superbly colourful orchestral writing - some splendidly sonorous brass - provides further encouragement, and we are seduced by sudden patches of bitonality that disrupt the harmony, often with little warning. The question is, at a little under 15 minutes, is it a symphony? The long, final tonic chord is both positive and assertive, and we are left with the impression of having participated in some kind of symphonic journey, albeit an unusual one. It is enough, I think, to warrant a qualified 'yes'.
For the Concerto for Orchestra, think Stravinsky in his Concerto in D for Strings or 'Dumbarton Oaks ', rather than Bartok. This is music in neo-classical style, though Røllum Larsen uses the more logical term neo-Baroque. It is another short work, 17 minutes being enough to dispatch its four movements. The first is stolidly rhythmical, with some surprising dissonances, whilst the second is a scherzo whose string writing puts me in mind of Tippett's in his own, glorious Concerto, that for Double String Orchestra. There is something procession-like about the serious, slow third movement, whereas the finale sounds like an attempt at high spirits. The composer's over-reliance on severe and endlessly worked-out counterpoint rather negates this, however, something that not even the splendidly dotty and raucous ending can quite retrieve. The concert overture Primavera can seem eccentric too, at times. An irrepressibly jubilant opening leads to a calmer passage featuring birdsong, before a return to the opening music for another unruly finish .
When Riisinger came to compose his Third Symphony he preferred to call it 'Sinfonia'. This is an unorthodox work indeed, in three movements that bear the tempo indications Feroce, Violento e fantastico and Tumultuoso. There are a few, brief passages of calm thrown in here and there . The musical argument might seem almost random at first, but a bit of listener staying power is all that is needed before the logic begins timidly to emerge. In any event, the work apparently perplexed its first audience in Copenhagen in 1935. Typical of its uncompromising nature is a strange and extended duet in the first movement between high strings and side drum. This refusal to go down established paths reminded me once more of Tippett, but another relevant name, evoked by Martin Anderson reviewing Volume 1 in this series (January 2012), is that of Malcolm Arnold. As a single example, listen to those passages in the second movement where the music is pared down, instrument by instrument, until it almost threatens to grind to a halt. Are they not very reminiscent of a similar passage in the first movement of Arnold 's First Symphony?
The performances are very fine. The violins of the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra are cruelly challenged more than once by Riisager s high, rapid and exposed writing, but it is difficult to imagine a better case being made for this music overall. The recording is excellent. 'Worth your time', wrote MA about Volume I. Well worth your time, say I.