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Music Web International (UK)

November 23, 2022

Stephen Barber

The Danish composer Poul Ruders is probably best known in Britain for his opera The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the novel by Margaret Atwood, which has had two productions here as well as numerous others in other parts of the world, and whose recording won a prize. He has also written several other operas and also a number of impressive symphonies, the fifth of which was one of my records of the year for 2017. I have not previously heard any of his chamber music, so I was glad to have this opportunity to get to know some of it.

There are two relatively recent works and one much earlier. We begin with the clarinet quintet. There are two ways of writing for a clarinet with a string quartet. One is to weave the clarinet into the texture, so that it shares thematic material with the strings but its very different timbre draws attention to itself while appearing to do the opposite. This was the technique of Mozart and Brahms in their clarinet quintets. The other way is to treat the clarinet as more of a concertante instrument, as a soloist, with the string quartet functioning as a tiny orchestra in contrast. This was the method adopted by Weber, and Ruders is closer to this than to the possibly daunting examples of Mozart and Brahms. There are three movements. The first opens with the clarinet in the high register with a rather splintered background from the strings. The mood is highly agitated but in its course it gradually calms down, though there are occasional frenetic outbursts right to the end. The slow movement is quiet with the clarinet wandering round chromatically in the lower register. The finale is full of clarinet flourishes but the mood is cheerful rather than agitated. It is a playful piece, though there is a meditative passage just before the end.

The other recent work is the piano quartet. This is in four movements, each of which has a title, rather than the usual tempo markings. These are: Awakening, Innocent, Sprightly and Translucent. As with the clarinet quintet, Ruders sets his additional instrument, the piano, in opposition to his strings. In the first movement we have tentative staccato phrases from the piano set against long lines on the strings. In the second movement we have slow-moving complex chords on the strings with occasional interjections by the piano – rather as in one of Bartók’s night music pieces. In the third movement we have fast moving strings while the piano has calls to attention. The finale is more like the second movement and, says the composer, is ‘a statement of bell-like clarity.’

Between these two works we have the much earlier Throne, which is written for clarinet and piano. Ruders offers ten words, which he thinks are evocative hints for the character of the piece. They begin Elevation, Unity, Diamonds and so on. I have to admit that I did not find them very helpful. The work begins in the depths of the piano from which a slow dance gradually develops. The pace quickens with the clarinet moving higher and higher in register until we reach a kind of screeching climax. After this there is a long pause before the music resumes quietly.

I found the clarinet quintet and piano quartet impressive though challenging works. I did not care for Throne, which is not a work which does much to engage the listener.

The players here are members of the Rudersdal Chamber Players, based in Rudersdal not far from Copenhagen. This ensemble is based on a piano quartet but they add other players as necessary. The members also play in various orchestras. These performances were clearly carefully prepared and are expertly delivered. The sound quality is good – I was listening in ordinary two-channel stereo but this is a SACD – and the booklet helpful. Fans of Ruders should try this.

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