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THE ART MUSIC LOUNGE

April 11, 2022

Lynn René Bayley

RUDERS: Harpsichord Concerto / Mahan Esfahani, hpd; Aarhus Symphony Orchestra; Leif Segerstam, cond / OUR Recordings 9.70896, digital-only EP available on streaming platforms (live: Århus, September 10, 2020)
There are strange releases, and then there are really strange releases, and this counts as one such. Recorded live in September 2020 in what sounds like an extremely resonant hall, it was somehow decided to release this work as a stand-alone piece, lasting only 20 minutes, as a digital-only download—albeit with cover art and liner notes.
One wonders why so distinguished and respected a composer as Poul Ruders wanted or agreed to this (one or the other), but it’s possible that, at the moment, no one wanted to spend money recording it, Ruders was pleased with the performance, and wanted to get it out. The music is a bit unusual for him; around the crisp, percussive sound of the harpsichord, playing metrically regular if harmonically challenging music, he has surrounded it with music that is somewhat neo-Romantic, at least harking back to the kind of scores that many modern composers were writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Much of the orchestra’s contribution consists of long, looping chords of sound, phrased quite lyrically, with occasional faster passages that run counter to what the soloist is playing.
And as it turns out, my instinct was correct. In the liner notes, Ruders makes the following statement:
Should one, when listening to my Concerto for Harpsichord and Symphony Orchestra, entertain the suspicion, that the composer has brought the past into the present – and vice versa – then one is not completely off the mark. 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.
As usual, Leif Segerstam is a very engaged conductor, fully entering the spirit of the music. Whether accidentally or purposefully, however, the over-resonant acoustics give the orchestra the sound of a huge organ. In fact, with so much of the scoring being around the middle range, Ruders could have written the orchestral part for a pipe organ and not have had much to change in the overall scoring of the piece. The slow central movement is the sparsest and strangest of the three, suddenly retreating from the extroverted sounds of the first into a still, quiet space somewhere inside Ruders’ mind. Yet even here, if one is familiar with the registrations of a good pipe organ, one can still imagine the orchestral score played on one.
In several ways, the third movement was, for me, the most fascinating. Marked “Alla breve,” the music bullies its way forward in the beginning as a sort of moto perpetuo without inflection or letup, yet even here there are held chords (and little sprinkles of percussion instruments like the triangle) that still suggest an organ. Strangely, too, the solo music is not essentially thematic so much as it is almost like a continuo playing against the massed orchestral forces. This is certainly a different approach to a concerto than I’m used to, although at times (especially in this last movement) the harpsichord seems to fill in or continue certain passages which the orchestra starts.
This is clearly an unusual and unorthodox piece, then, that will keep you guessing where it is going and what it will arrive at. I personally found it challenging and interesting if not always clear in its direction. Lynn René Bayley, April 14th 2022