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Dacapo - The National Music Anthology of Denmark

Format:  CD

Catalogue Number:  8.226148

Barcode:  636943614822

Release month:  Jan 2014

Period:  Early 20th Century


Knudåge Riisager: The Symphonic Edition Vol. 3

25 February 2014  MusicWeb International
Paul Corfield Godfrey

This release constitutes Volume Three of DaCapo’s ‘symphonic edition’ of the works of Knudage Riisager. This has been slowly appearing over the years - the first volume having been released two years ago.
Riisager is nowadays remembered (if at all) for his ballet music, and this volume completes the recordings of his symphonies, most of which in this series receive their first performances since the time of their original premières. The four works featured on this final disc feature predominantly works in the neo-classical vein. It is surprising to find such an ardent proponent of neo-classical music being so dismissive of symphonic form.
The neo-classical style as espoused by the likes of Hindemith and Stravinsky was probably the major force in classical music between the two World Wars. It found many imitators; but, like the serial movement that followed it, it also attracted many unimaginative composers who found it all too easy to go through the motions demanded by the style rather than be genuinely original. It has to be said that Sinfonia concertante on this disc does sound very like a composer going conscientiously through the motions. The music is determinedly lightweight, with an occasional spicing of bitonality to add a succulent tinge to the sound. The orchestration, one of Riisager’s main strengths in his ballet music, is hardly given much opportunity to make an impression in the determinedly spare scoring for strings.
Nor is the Fourth Symphony, subtitled ‘gay’, much more substantial in content. The heavier orchestration adds a welcome touch of colour, but this is more of a sinfonietta in three movements than a symphony proper. In 1940 Riisager had written an article for the Danske Musikidsskrift entitled “The symphony is dead - long live music!” but two months later he produced this work in which he claimed associations with “the tense political situation”. In fact there is little evidence of this apart from his suggested programmatic titles for the movements: Defiance, Gracefulness and Courage. It was only given one performance, and this recording constitutes only its second outing. Apart from stressful syncopation, there is little obviously defiant rather than just high-spirited in the opening movement. The slow second movement while graceful is more in the nature of an intermezzo.
For that matter, the last of Riisager’s symphonies, the so-called Sinfonia serena in the conventional four movements, is no long-forgotten masterpiece. The orchestration is cut back to strings and timpani. The scoring for the strings is nicely varied; but there is not much that is serene about the busy neo-classical writing here. The scherzo shows the decided influence of Britten’s Playful pizzicato from his Simple Symphony, with something close to an outright quotation at 1.39 (track 11). This symphony received more than one performance, being given at Salzburg by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in 1952. But only the Lamentoso slow movement has much in the way of atmosphere, and even then not much serenity. One wonders why Riisager gave the work this subtitle.
The Summer Rhapsody which opens the disc falls decidedly into the category of ‘light music,’ a succession of folk-inspired melodies in orchestrations that sound remarkably like Malcolm Arnold without that composer’s piquant touches to lend them distinction. Otherwise it is simply a potpourri of Danish folk tunes with decided overtones of Friday Night is Music Night. More certainly not symphonic, however.
One does not wish to discourage record companies from the exploration of the outer fringes of the repertory, but it has to be admitted that there are certainly no works here which were screaming out to be recorded. The music is highly pleasurable, but one suspects that Riisager did not find the symphonic form congenial; maybe his earlier symphonies were more involving. His ballet scores, on the other hand, are more substantial than this: those who wish to explore this aspect of his work are recommended to investigate a 1997 Chandos release conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, which is highly enjoyable.
The performances by the Aarhus Orchestra, ably directed by Bo Holten, sound fine and enthusiastic, although the string tone is sometimes a bit wiry; the recorded sound is excellent. One just wishes that the music was more involving.

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