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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

Experienced Danish combo Bo Holten and the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra (ASO) are back already with a third and final volume in their highly likeable 'Symphonic Edition' of Knudåge Riisager (pronounced roughly c'noothe-or-ga ree-say-awe). Despite Dacapo's series title, this has not been simply a cycle of Riisager's five symphonies, but a more comprehensive orchestral survey. 

In that regard, a very decent Riisager 'Orchestral Works' disc - featuring the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard and a brief but significant guest appearance by Håkan Hardenberger - amounts to a preface to the edition. This came out originally in 1997 (as 8.224028), but in 2010 Dacapo re-released it with cover art subsequently, and conveniently, imitated by the three 'Symphonic Edition' discs. In fact though, there are yet two further Dacapo discs, from 2005 (8.226022) and 2008 (6.220527), that certainly belong in any orchestral edition, not least because the first - Riisager's 'Arctic' ballets Qarrtsiluni and Månerenen - was recorded by Holten and the ASO. 

Riisager's symphonies are, in a sense, sui generis, and will not necessarily appeal to audiences accustomed to the more orthodox symphonic fare of Gade, Nielsen, Langgaard, Hamerik or Glass. In fact Riisager applied the label 'symphony' to non-sonata-form works that in some ways are little different to orchestral suites of characteristic pieces or ballet sections. Always something of a maverick in Danish music, he published an article in 1940 proclaiming "The symphony [...] dead - long live music!" Unlike many contemporaries, he showed no interest in following in Nielsen's footsteps: "The very thought of 'continuing' Carl Nielsen's work is a poor idea," he wrote, "because it has after all been done better - that is, by Nielsen himself - than it can be done in the future." 

Riisager's scores certainly eschew the rhetorical longwindedness often associated with the Teutonic tradition - indeed, none of the five symphonies exceeds twenty-five minutes, and three come in below twenty. Melody-rich, harmonically consonant and lucidly structured, the symphonies and other orchestral works further augment their audience-friendliness with an almost constant rhythmic vitality. As there are rarely any darker or serious episodes, and virtually no references to jazz or modernism, Riisager might be said to have a very 19th-century 'sound', yet in fact the neo-Classical, even neo-Baroque, textures that characterise large sections of these scores hark back further still. 

For those yet to commit to this cycle, the present volume may well prove the most rewarding. The opening Summer Rhapsody is an aptly sunny blend of folk and joke, whilst the elegant five-movement Sinfonia Concertante is as much a symphony as the numbered five are - or indeed are not. The Sinfonia Gaia has nothing to do with Mother Earth: this is an Italian title in which gaia means 'merry'; the notes imprudently translate it as 'Gay Symphony'. This is equally misleading - the recent outbreak of the Second World War was naturally on Riisager's mind and the work mines a sizeable vein of irony. On the other hand, a sense of hope clearly predominates and the work finishes on an emphatic upbeat. Written long after the war had ended, Riisager's Sinfonia Serena was, regrettably, his final utterance in the genre. Stylistically, the work pretty much takes up where the Gaia had left off, although the scoring is now for strings and timpani alone, and the atmosphere is darker in places, at least in the central lamentoso movement. 

The ASO are in fine form - there is some tremendous brass-playing on the Summer Rhapsody, but the string sections too are worthy of especial mention. Under Bo Holten they have emerged as compelling advocates of Riisager's music. 
As for previous volumes, the disc is embellished by good quality audio and recorded exclusivity - all four works are, rather surprisingly, receiving their first outing on disc. Though the accompanying booklet notes are straight copies in part of the original Dausgaard disc, they are still Dacapo's usual detailed, informative, broadly well written efforts.

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