April 3, 2022
RUDERS Harpsichord Concerto. Aarhus Symphony, Orchestra, Leif Segerstam, cond.; Mahan Esfahani (hpschd) OUR 9.07896 (20:58)
The Danish composer Poul Ruders (b.1949) has carved out a career as a vivid, exuberant, and non-doctrinaire artist. His music is unafraid of modernist complexity (often process-driven contrapuntal textures, chromatically enriched harmonies), but has also incorporated elements more related to minimalism, such as rhythmic pulse and repetition. Its orchestration is vivid, and it exults in grand gestures. And while quite varied from one work to another, there is enough commonality of practice that one feels that each new encounter is with a consistent voice.
This new digital download EP release is of just one work, but still lavishly produced. This Harpsichord Concerto is in the traditional three movements, beginning with driving repeated notes from the soloist, moving to a slow movement that is suspended on the thread of a single pointillistic line from the keyboard, and concluding with a return to driving rhythmic texture, this time much more chordal.
The composer’s biggest trick is working through the issue of balance. Few instruments are more fragile than the harpsichord, and of course the full orchestra is a powerhouse. Ruders in his notes says that the key was creating a subtle but real amplification for the solo instrument; but one also hears that he is scrupulous about reserving orchestral tutti for moments when the harpsichord takes a breather, and then using far more transparent textures as accompaniment.
The result is a vivid and consistently engaging and energizing work. And despite all the energy, I find myself returning most of all to the exceptional middle slower movement. There’s one passage that is quite brilliant in its imaginative simplicity, with the keyboard line being divided between two ranks, one muted in low register the other unmuted in high. The effect is mysterious and magical.
This is the first exclusive digital download that I have reviewed, and I’m happy to say that the process was easy and painless. The booklet is comprehensive and informative. The performances are outstanding; indeed the composer says that he probably would not have undertaken this piece headed not been for a chance to work with Esfahani, whose performance obviously justifies his virtuosic reputation.
I have to say I like the idea of individual works becoming more available to us in this manner, though at the same time I don’t want to give up the collective “album” concept offered by the CD. Robert Carl, April 2022
****A brilliant and vivid concerto from a Danish master composer in his prime.