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New Great 5 stars review in US Magazine Fanfare

September 28, 2022

Huntley Dent

RUDERS Clarinet Quintet1. Throne2. Piano Quartet3  2, 3Manuel Esperilla (pn); 1, 2Jonas Frølund (cl); 1, 3Christine Pryn, 3Isabelle Bania (vn); 1, 3Mina Fred (va); 1, 3John Ehde (vc)  OUR RECORDINGS 6220680 (58:38)

This collection of chamber works by Poul Ruders is fascinating not only because of the excellence of the individual works but also for the insight it gives into a composer’s mind. I often wonder whether contemporary composers feel blessed or cursed by the unlimited possibilities they face before picking up their pens. When Schoenberg liberated the dissonance through the embrace of atonality, at the same time he planted a bomb under the chromatic scale. It was only logical, after late-Romanticism had exhausted the possibilities of post-Tristan chromaticism, to take the next step of exploring every note of the scale as equals. But as a result, C Major was no longer a cheerful key, D Minor a dramatic one, or the tonic a safe arrival back home. In one of his few conciliatory gestures, Schoenberg declared that “There is still plenty of good music to be written in C major,” which hardly needed saying.
It would have been more reassuring if he had indicated how to keep atonality from drifting off into a kind of intellectual hyperspace where only the composer knew what was happening. This is the thread of thought that made me focus on Ruders’s mind, because without providing the safe harbor of tonality, the comfort of consonant melody, or the signposts of program music, he has written three works that the listener can navigate and enjoy by ear.
The most accessible work is the Clarinet Quintet from 2014, which holds the ear, particularly in the first movement, through flights of virtuosity for the solo clarinet. Ruders’s imagination gives in to the delight of showboating. The marking of Avanti alla breve is like an exuberant cry of “Avanti!” In the contrasting slow movement, the key word in the marking of Adagio sognante is “dreaming,” a mood evoked by using long, sustained chords that suggest a chorale. Here the clarinet is merged into the string harmony, and until the end, when a few active gestures are allowed, the motion is nearly static. Interest is maintained by overlapping closely related intervals to give an ambiguous harmonic effect.
The finale, marked Animato, returns the clarinet to the limelight in a riff on the traditional Rondo in which a three-note motif revolves around itself in high spirits. But Ruders is so adroit that he rarely lets a few measures go by without introducing some slip-sliding in the harmonic texture, rather like his own version of a glissando. The performance is exemplary, featuring an enthusiastic and fully engaged clarinetist, Jonas Frølund, in the dashing solo part. The excellent string players are members of the Rudersal Chamber Players—the name isn’t derived from the composer’s name but refers to the town north of Copenhagen that presents an annual music festival where the ensemble is in residence. The high-definition recorded sound from the Danish boutique label Our Recordings is excellent throughout. I’d only wish for the microphone placement in the Clarinet Quintet to be a little closer for maximum detail and less hall resonance.
Ruders is a prolific composer, probably the best-known and most frequently commissioned composer in Denmark, but being prolific makes it hard for a particular work to stand out. For me, his captivating Clarinet Quintet is a standout and deserves to be considered a gem in the contemporary clarinet repertoire.
The earliest work here by almost than three decades is Throne for clarinet and piano from 1988. Ruders was 39 at the time, which means that his formative years as a composer in the late Sixties and early Seventies coincided with the height of academic 12-tone orthodoxy. Although he describes himself as largely self-taught, Throne seems to derive from a more abstract, intellectual sensibility than the Clarinet Quintet. The clarinet and piano are neither used for virtuosic effect. They tend to adhere to each other harmonically, sometimes in unison, only to fly off in spare, isolated gestures.
In his composer’s notes Ruders declines to tell us what “throne” means in the title, only providing hints through ten evocative words, beginning with Elevation, Unity, and Diamonds, and ending with Decline, Oblivion, and Nothing. As hints go, these are unhelpful—the music doesn’t, to my ears at least, correspond to any mood associated with these words, except that all pieces end in silence, or nothing. Frølund, and pianist Manuel Esperilla seem like ideal performers, although I have no other version to compare them with. Throne isn’t hard to follow from bar to bar, but it feels overall like an inward expression of worked-out ideas that require effort from the listener to penetrate. A certain taste for cryptic music is needed to fully appreciate the piece.
The most recent work is the Piano Quartet from 2016, where in contrast to his usual reticence, Ruders offers emotional cues to the four movements, titled Awakening, Innocent, Sprightly, and Translucent. He even suggests a quasi-program in the first movement, where the fragile, hesitant opening by the piano is like a flower delicately opening at down and expanding to full bloom as the three string instruments (violin, viola, cello) successively enter. But I found the Piano Quartet to be abstract music that isn’t elucidated by any imagery.
It acquires its interest as pure music quite successfully. In the postmodern era composers came to terms with the fully liberated chromatic scale, each in their own way. Ruders can display a wide range of voices, but throughout this collection his style is compact, tightly knit, and rarely effusive (excepting the outer movements of the Clarinet Quintet). In the Piano Quartet he keeps the piano closely tied to the strings, excluding almost all showy writing even when the piano is dominant. “Innocent” brings back the static, chorale-like writing found in the middle movement of the Clarinet Quintet, and as in Throne, a listener can navigate the music from bar to bar even though Ruders’s overall design is obscure.
What impresses me is that unlike so many other contemporary composers, he isn’t eclectic in the sense that assimilations from the avant garde, Minimalism, neo-Romanticism, et al. stick out as stylistic markers. Each work here defines its own idiom and teaches the listener’s ear how to follow that idiom. Even though the Piano Quartet has a quasi-Scherzo (Sprightly), Ruders doesn’t fall back on traditional forms. In the end, he sounds only like himself.
When you do an online surf of Ruders’s large output, his unpredictability stands out, along with a willingness to be open and flexible about tonality and form. This implies great self-confidence and a gifted ear, two qualities that these three chamber works display in abundance. Warmly recommended as a gratifying listen if you are sympathetic to contemporary music as deeply personal expression.
Huntley Dent
Five stars: A fascinating glimpse into a major composer’s imagination

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