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Fantastic review in Music Web International

May 12, 2022

Philip R Buttall

Music Web International (UK)
Poul RUDERS (b. 1949)
Harpsichord Concerto (2020)
Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. live, September 2020, Symphonic Hall, Åarhus, Denmark
Recorded in the DXD audio format (Digital eXtreme Definition, 352.8 kHz/32bit)
Digital EP Release
First recording
OUR RECORDINGS 9.70896 [20:58]
Before considering the musical merits of this new release, it’s important to realize exactly what the product is, and its raison d’être, otherwise you could just look at the extremely short playing-time by normal CD standards, and simply dismiss it out of hand, there and then.

Nowadays, most of us are used to receiving virtually everything in digital form, and naturally this extends to our individual music collections. It’s great to have over a thousand CDs, all in their attractive cases, and with booklets enclosed, but logistically this does have problems, should you wish to have them available in your car, or when away on holiday. Downloadable files can, however, make all this possible, and, even if you’re a tad behind the times in terms of the technology, most youngsters will be only too pleased to show you exactly what to do.

Poul Ruders was born in 1949 in Ringsted, Denmark and initially trained as an organist, while studying orchestration with Karl Aage Rasmussen. Ruders now lives a spartan life in the Danish countryside, where the isolation has afforded him the opportunity to produce a substantial and varied catalogue of works, which include operas, symphonic works and concertos, as well as numerous solo, and chamber-music compositions.

There’s almost a ‘fairy-tale’ story to the Harpsichord Concerto itself. One day in 2019, as Ruders switched on his computer, up popped a commission from the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, for a new piece for harpsichord and orchestra – which would feature leading international virtuoso, Mahan Esfahani. The rest, they say, is history.

Esfahani was born in Tehran in 1984, but raised in the United States, where he went on to study at Stanford University, before ultimately completing his artistic apprenticeship under celebrated Czech harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková, who sadly passed away in 2017. Esfahani travelled to London to perform at a private event, where there just happened to be someone from the BBC’s music department, who was impressed with what he heard, and started to set the wheels of fame in motion.

In 2008, Esfahani became the first harpsichordist to be named a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, which was followed by a three-year stint as Artist-in-Residence at New College, Oxford. Further honours and academic positions followed, but it was his work as a performing artist that propelled him to the forefront of the classical-music world. The downloadable booklet (in PDF format) takes up where I’ve left off, and he has also uploaded a most absorbing five-minute video to YouTube, where he talks about the work’s world premiere in September 2020, and the specific challenges it presents to the performers.

The Aarhus Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1935, and is based in the city’s award-winning Symphonic Hall, where the concerto was recorded. Acting as honorary conductor for the occasion, Finnish-born Leif Segerstam is arguably one of the most versatile musical talents from the Nordic lands. He studied violin, piano, composition and conducting in Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy, before taking a postgraduate course at New York’s Juilliard School of Music. Apart from being a celebrated conductor, Segerstam is also a composer and to date has written 335 symphonies. In 1999 he received the Nordic Council’s Music Award for his outstanding achievement of bringing Nordic music to orchestras around the globe.

Thanks to the talent and passion of performers like Warsaw-born Wanda Landowska, or British harpsichord and clavichord player, Violet Gordon-Woodhouse, the harpsichord began to reappear in Europe’s musical world in the first decades of the twentieth century. But while prominent names like Francis Poulenc and Manuel de Falla, for example, both composed concertos for this newly-rediscovered instrument, de Falla soon realized that the harpsichord was easily overpowered when in direct competition with larger instrumental forces.

His concerto, premiered in 1926, consequently pits the solo instrument against a quintet comprising violin, cello, flute, oboe, and clarinet, whereas Poulenc’s Concert Champêtre, premiered three years later, sets the harpsichord against the might of a full symphony orchestra, which naturally creates considerable issues as far as dynamic balance is concerned. Since the 1920s, other composers took up the challenge, from Walter Leigh’s poetic Concertino (1934), Ned Rorem’s neoclassical Concertino da Camera (1946), Viktor Kalabis’s Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings (1975), and Michael Nyman’s thrilling Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord (1995). Prior to composing his Harpsichord Concerto, Ruders had enjoyed a long association with the instrument as a performer in his youth, and had written two volumes entitled Cembal d’amore for harpsichord and piano, instruments with two very distinctive timbres and dynamic ranges.

In the CD booklet, Ruders explains the rationale behind the Harpsichord Concerto by dint of a somewhat rhetorical question, which I’ve paraphrased as follows: ‘Does the listener think that the composer has ‘brought the past into the present – and vice versa’? He goes on to say that he’s always been fascinated by the practice of restoration-architecture where old, disused buildings are given a new identity and purpose, and he has merely brought this symbiosis to the realms of musical composition. While he accepts that the harpsichord is an instrument normally associated with music of the Baroque period, he also acknowledges its use in those twentieth-century concertante works mentioned earlier. Ruders’s Harpsichord Concerto therefore represents the composer’s aspiration to create the perfect synergy between ‘yesterday’ and ‘today’, but without slipping into ‘hackneyed neo-classicism’ – or mere pastiche. This he has achieved – both stylistically and practically – by employing ‘carefully-prepared and controlled electronic amplification’ which then allows him to make use of hitherto impossible sonorities and textures.

Playing devil’s advocate, he suggests that musical purists or period-instrument aficionados will be ‘horrified’ – indeed the mere thought is ‘abominable’. But, by way of mitigation, he does say that he has kept to the familiar order of movements in a classical concerto – fast, slow and, somewhat cryptically, ‘well…just you wait…’ as far as the finale is concerned. So, without further ado…

The first movement, appropriately marked Avanti risoluto (Forward, with resolve) opens with an orchestral statement that certainly evokes something primeval, or otherworldly, as the soloist busies himself with moto perpetuo-like figuration, while the orchestra switches between repeated pedal-Gs, and ostinato patterns – short phrases that keep repeating. In one respect this clearly suggests the style of the Baroque, even if the often-astringent harmonies might appear to gainsay this. Indeed, the opening has been described as depicting the harpsichord as being in an inhospitable setting, simply keeping occupied, and doing their own thing, seemingly oblivious to what might be going on around them. There is a short, traditional cadenza for the harpsichord along the way, while the easiest way to describe how the movement ends would simply be to say, ‘it just stops’.

If we were to look back briefly to the concertos of Chopin, it would almost be possible to dispense with the orchestra, such is their fairly-minimal involvement overall. Ironically, in Ruders’s Concerto the orchestra plays an absolutely fundamental part in the work, with some mesmerizing orchestral timbres and effects, and yet, even compared with Chopin’s piano of the time, any kind of harpsichord – whether a period or modern instrument – would normally be completely swamped and overpowered by the orchestra. This, of course, was something that Poulenc or de Falla needed to focus on, every single bar, whereas Ruders, as we know, takes full advantage of today’s technology, in terms of his highly-effective use of amplification for his solo instrument.

The second movement, marked Andante, is almost like a far-more-placid version of the first, just as ethereal, but with the harpsichord eminently more contemplative, in fact almost dreamlike, but where the orchestra still creates a somewhat threatening backdrop. Whether cyclic form deliberately figures in the composer’s masterplan, the soloist does make frequent use of a similar broken-octaves’ pattern heard at the concerto’s orchestral opening.

In the Finale, marked Vivace-Martellato alla breve, the harpsichord immediately becomes far more insistent and, in conjunction with the orchestra, produces a pounding, unremitting, sense of energy as if the instrument had finally decided to go along with the well-worn saying, if you can’t beat them, join them. Later in the movement, there is a chorale-like section that appears to be loosely based on the Dies Irae, but in a slightly-warped version. From there on in, the movement continues, until it comes to a halt on an orchestral chord of mixed tonality which, in fact, turns out to be the conclusion of the concerto.

While the first two movements had ended in somewhat similar fashion, it has to be said that the finale really does leave the listener very much up in the air. Perhaps this was what the composer was referring to, albeit somewhat cryptically, when he advised us to ‘wait and see’, as far as the finale was concerned. I feel Ruders was really asking the listener whether he had achieved his ultimate goal of creating the perfect symbiosis of old and new

In terms of the performance itself, Mahan Esfahani’s playing is simply breath-taking throughout. Ruders impressively-idiomatic writing for the harpsichord is centred on Esfahani’s prodigious skill and virtuosity, as well as his all-embracing sense of musical architecture, expressive niceties, and incredible feel for detail. It might, therefore, be felt that a bespoke concerto like this would fit the player like a well-tailored suit, but if you listen to Esfahani’s video mentioned above, he confirms just how very difficult the work is, in every respect. His prodigious talents, however, are such that he is able to surmount every technical challenge, effectively belying its obvious difficulty.

The Aarhus Symphony Orchestra’s highly-disciplined playing, full rich sound, and scintillating timbres, also make a telling contribution, and Leif Segerstam is totally at home here, offering real support and direction from the front. I listened to the EP as a wav. Download (44.1kHz/16-bit) and it’s a mightily impressive sound to start with. But according to OUR Recordings, it will also be possible to download the music in DXD format, as well as being able to stream the recording in Dolby Atmos format. This is the first exclusively-digital download that I have had the great pleasure to review, but the actual process was easy and painless – and I didn’t feel a thing, either.

Had the Concerto simply appeared as a conventional CD, it would surely have been quickly rounded upon by potential buyers, for its meagre playing time of twenty minutes or so, As such, it would certainly have needed a lot more music to partner it on disc, given that the average CD length is roughly sixty to seventy minutes, making the digital format the only viable way forward on this occasion.

But if you’re willing and able to embrace the concept of a digital EP, you won’t miss out on accessing what is a simply fascinating work, which represents the absolute summation of an exemplary performance, outstanding recording, and, of course, a truly-absorbing composition that really transcends similar works of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries

I have, however, deliberately left one question unanswered until now – whether Poul Ruders has actually achieved his goal of creating the perfect symbiosis of old and new? I definitely think he has, and in a highly-successful and original way, too. Furthermore, for me this work has confirmed the time-honoured adage that you’re never too old to learn a new trick – or, at least to learn to appreciate it. May 13th 2022
Philip R Buttall