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Great 5 stars review in Fanfare (US)

September 22, 2022

Colin Clarke

RUDERS Clarinet Quintet1. Throne2. Piano Quartet3 • 1–3Jonas Frølund (cl); 1Isabelle Bania, 1,3Christine Pryn (vn); 1,3Mina Fred (va); 1,3John Ehde (vc); 2,3Manuela Esperilla (pn) • OUR 6.220680 (58:36)
From his Harpsichord Concerto (Fanfare 45:6) to his remarkable The Thirteenth Child (Fanfare 43:1) to his unforgettable opera The Handmaid’s Tale, Poul Ruders’s music never fails to impress. Here, he seems to be taking on so-called “traditional forms,” certainly forms with a back history: the clarinet quintet and the piano quartet (think Mozart and Brahms for both).
The Clarinet Quintet dates from 2014. It was commissioned by Harry Cameron-Penny and written for that player with the Benyounes Quartet. There is no program; the music stands on its own merits, and there are many. This is brilliantly conceived music by a master craftsman, as the opening Avati alla breve demonstrates. Repeated listening reveals how the lines and textures shift in and out of focus, allowing for new foregroundings to occur. This is a performance of clearly careful consideration of Ruders’s score. Clarinetist Jonas Frølund is clearly a virtuoso; each of his chamber music colleagues needs to be such too, and so it is here. Angular melodies feel entirely natural, and while there is a sense of play in the motivic workings, it is one with an undercurrent of dis-ease. The slow movement feels like pure Ruders, crystalline and slow-moving. If the first movement explores some of the more rugged sonorities available to clarinet and solo strings, the slow movement searches out more elliptical sounds. Control is all for the instrumentalists, and all have it in abundance: Listen to Frølund’s exquisite high pianissimo (and how he controls a crescendo, gradation perfectly judged). The finale is a helter-skelter, dissonant ride (it is simply marked Animato), which seems to have ambitions to be at least for clarinet and string orchestra. It frequently feels like it wants to breach its boundaries, and is all the more exciting for it. There are moments of glistening upper violin sonorities for Christine Pryn and Isabelle Bania, and balancing that the most astonishingly clear articulation from Mina Fred on viola and John Ehde on cello. The entire construction is tight on a micro-level (immediate harmonies), and how effective is the close, with its high, quiet solo clarinet, again exquisitely done by Frølund.
The sandwich filling between the two big pieces of bread is an earlier work, Throne. Dating back to 1988, this seems to inhabit a darker space. With its royal theme (it is perhaps particularly pertinent, given the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom) the piece explores a sequence of images that end in oblivion and then nothing. The exact sequence is: “Elevation”; “Unity”; “Diamonds”; “Crown”; “Glory”; “Velvet”; “Frailty”; “Decline”; “Oblivion”; “Nothing.” The music is stark, bleak, and utterly mesmerizing. It is scored for clarinet and piano, and Ruders finds a whole sheaf of astonishing sounds and sonorities to explore during the course of this particular journey. Frølund and Manuela Esperilla play as one, giving an absolute masterclass in duo performance, the very epitome of chamber playing. Esperilla’s mastery of the sustaining pedal is particularly noteworthy. The piece includes a long stretch of silence (“the longest stretch of nobody playing … in the history of Western music outside John Cage,” as the composer puts it). It’s hard to bring off in a concert situation, and even harder on disc, and yet Frøling and Esperilla manage it beautifully.
Finally, there comes the Piano Quartet (2015/16). Each of the four movements has a capitalized title: “AWAKENING”; “INNOCENT”; “SPRIGHTLY”; “TRANSLUCENT.” The themes of the first movement have a Copland-like simplicity and openness, and Ruders opts to bring in the instruments additively. Once the cello has joined the party, the music, again in the composer’s own words, “begins to open up, like the dewy petals of a flower welcoming the warmth of the rising sun at dawn.” The paring down of movement in “INNOCENT” indeed takes us to a different space, one with “the total absence of any hidden agenda.” This is hard to bring off musically, and it feels perfect here. The third movement could hardly be more different: playful, Neoclassical, full of bright, confident gestures. The introvert meets the extrovert, Yin meets Yang, in perfect balance. Hints of emerging consonance titillate the ear, themselves heard in contrast to more grinding, violent textures. The lightning reflexes demanded by this music are absolutely in evidence from the Rudersdal Chamber Players, who perform here. The finale is absolutely what it says on the case (“translucent”); Ruders calls this a “soul mate” of the innocence of the second movement. “The petals fold and close. It’s night again,” and he places the exact moment of nightfall by the clever, effective final gesture. Both the music and performance are unforgettable.
Ruders’s genius continues to shine in this eminently satisfying chamber disc. Unhesitatingly recommended. Colin Clarke, September 2022

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