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Fanfare Great 5 Star review no. 3

April 10, 2022

Colin Clarke

RUDERS Harpsichord Concerto.  Mahan Esfahani (hpd); Leif Segerstam, cod; Aarhus SP  OUR RECORDINGS 9.70896 (20:58) reviewed from a wav download: 44.1 kHz/16-bit
Five stars: Recommended: the confluence of composition, performance and recording is beyond criticism
Listening to this new, 2022 work by Poul Ruders with the sounds of English National Opera’s new production of The Handmaid’s Tale ringing in my ears only confirms the status of this composer’s music; he is a giant of contemporary music.
The Harpsichord Concerto is a joint commission from the Aarhus Symphony and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Ruders has enjoyed a long association with the harpsichord, an instrument he himself played when young. There are two books entitled Cembal d’amore (for harpsichord and piano); and now. harpsichord concerto for the brilliant Mahan Esfahani. As in Handmaid’s Tale, there are references to gesture from the past and, here, a structure (three movements, fast, slow, fast); as in The Handmaid’s Tale, Ruders takes these elements for a walk into his own highly individual Universe. Here, Ruders, his own admission, is aiming for a “perfect symbiosis between ‘yesterday’ and ‘today’ (but without slipping into hackneyed neo-classicism), not only stylistically, but also on a practical level”.
As Ruders also points out, the harpsichord was never intended to appear with a full modern symphony orchestra, and so in achieving balance via controlled electronic amplification, not only can equality be achieved, but a new soundworld is created in the process. The first movement, “Avanti risoluto” (forward, resolute) is a toccata; yet the very opening is curiously Romantic in nature. This being Ruders, themes are fractured and sometimes viewed as if through a fairground mirror (think also of his use of Amazing Grace in The Handmaid’s Tale). Rhythmic interplay between solo and tutti is delightful; a carefully-chosen word, as Ruders offers a light touch here, although, as so often in his music, there is an undercurrent of disquiet. Esfahani’s performance is beyond criticism; his understanding of contemporary music bows to none (I was present at the recording sessions for his remarkable disc Musique? on Hyperion, a program of Takemitsu, Cowell, Saariaho, Bryars, Abbasi and Ferrari, a recording to cherish). The mysterious Andante of the Concerto, its direction giving no clues as to the depths the music provides, offers those frozen, slightly unstable harmonies and textures (another aspect of that disquiet) that are so typically Ruders), This performance shows remarkable control by the members of the Aarhus orchestra; and somehow the very sound of the harpsichord creates a unique soundspace here, This movement sits in direct opposition to the finale, marked “Vivace. Marellato alla breve” and, yes, with relentless tread, but with contour and variety, too. Segerstam marshals his forces brilliantly (there are many “tight corners” of ensemble, all brilliantly negotiated). There is one moment of such mechanical precision that we seem to have entered the realms of electronic music, before Ruders offers block chords of almost filmic demeanor. As the composer says in his booklet notes, this might seem like a clear-cut fast-slow-fast structure, but within that, “... well …. just you wait". The many sides of this finale offer an unpredictability that is most appealing.
The recording is impeccable, the intended balance achieved spectacularly.
So, did Ruders achieve his goal of a “perfect symbiosis”? I think so, and he did so in the most appealing of terms. The piece is decidedly of our time, but it has a prevailingly gentle edge that might well make it the ideal starting point for a listener to explore the large and varied catalogue of Poul Ruders.
Recommended on every conceivable level. The confluence of composition, performance and recording here is beyond criticism. Colin Clarke, April 2022