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Planet Hugell

June 14, 2022

Robert Hugill

Poul Ruders Harpsichord Concerto; Mahan Esfahani, Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, Leif Sgestram; OUR Recordings
Poul Ruders Harpsichord Concerto; Mahan Esfahani, Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, Leif Sgestam; OUR Recordings
Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani premieres a work written for him, a concerto that utilises the instrument with remarkable vividness & vibrancy

The world premiere recording of Poul Ruders' Harpsichord Concerto has been issued as an EP by OUR Recordings with soloist Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord), Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, conductor Leif Segestam.

The concerto, premiered in 2020, was written as the result of a commission from the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra specifically for a work for harpsichord and orchestra, and is here recorded live in Aarhus.

Contemporary music for harpsichord and orchestra is not a new thing, since the instruments revitalising in the 20th century there have been composers willing to experiment from Manuel de Falla and Francis Poulenc to Joseph Horovitz and beyond. Ruders' takes quite a traditional approach, this is a three movement work, fast - slow - fast, lasting some 20 minutes.

Ruders explains his approach in the accompanying booklet:

"I've always been fascinated by the form of restoration architecture, with which old, disused, but conservation worthy buildings, such as churches, factories and warehouses, are being given a new identity and purpose through a happy symbiosis between contemporary ideas and inventions, a modernity that hasn’t congealed through blind self indulgence."

Indeed, as a young man Ruders played the harpsichord and has used the instrument in his orchestration, and first wrote a solo for the instrument in 1985 with his Cembal D'Amore for piano and harpsichord. But here he has to rise to the challenge of writing for harpsichord and orchestra when balance is a problem, after all the harpsichord was never meant to appear with a modern symphony orchestra and when Wanda Landowska commissioned Francis Poulenc's Concert champêtre the solo instrument she had in mind was a mammoth steel-framed harpsichord rather remote from the authentic instruments common nowadays.

Here, Ruders opts to use discreet amplification so that the balance is taken care of but on the recording, at least, this comes over with a nice degree of naturalism. Slightly frustratingly, the recording information does not include details of the instrument that Mahan Esfahani uses.

In all three movements, Ruders seems to be aiming at a sort of toccata style, rapid repetitions of notes to counter the fact that the harpsichord has little sustaining possibility. There is little of the neo-classical about Ruders' style. In the first movement, an orchestral statement is then overlaid by throbbing harpsichord chords and this develops into a real moto perpetuo with the orchestra providing support and comment (mainly the latter). The soloist seems to have a determinedly independent existence, yet the sound-world is completely fascinating. The slow movement begins with a slow-moving orchestral texture, to which the harpsichord adds a steady sequence of notes, not so much a soloist as primus inter pares, the instrument providing tang and point to the orchestra, and yet if you consider the harpsichord writing on its own, it remains a moto perpetuo, albeit slowed down. The overall feel seems very much to lean towards Bartok's night music. The third movement starts with a stunningly energetic statement from the harpsichord, repeated chords with a near sense of violence. The orchestra picks up on this energy and the whole movement seems a dialogue, the two passing energy and ideas between each other.

The whole performance has a remarkable vigour and elan. Mahan Esfahani is tireless as the soloist and produces a whole array of stunning sounds and textures, supported and complemented by Segerstam and the orchestra. That this is a live performance is all the more remarkable, the sound quality is very fine indeed. This concerto deserves a far wider audience and I do hope this striking disc will encourage other orchestras

Poul Ruders (born 1949) - Harpsichord Concerto (2020)
Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra
Leif Segestam (conductor)
Recorded live at Symphonic Hall, Aarhus, Denmark, 10 September 2020
OUR Recordings 9.70896 [20.58] Digital only release