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Knudåge RIISAGER (1897-1974)
The Symphonic Edition - Vol. 3
Summer Rhapsody (on Danish Folk Melodies), op.43 (1943) [11:33]
Sinfonia Concertante, for strings, op.34 (1937) [15:11]
Sinfonia Gaia (Symphony no.4), op.38 (1939-40) [18:02]
Sinfonia Serena (Symphony no.5), for strings and timpani, op.52 (1949-50) [19:30]
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra/Bo Holten
rec. Musikhuset, Aarhus, Denmark, 10-14 September 2012; 19-20 November 2012 (Concertante).
DACAPO 8.226148 [64:15]

Experienced Danish combo Bo Holten and the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra (ASO) are back already with a third and final volume in their highly likeable 'Symphonic Edition' of Knudåge Riisager (pronounced roughly c'noothe-or-ga ree-say-awe). Despite Dacapo's series title, this has not been simply a cycle of Riisager's five symphonies, but a more comprehensive orchestral survey. 

In that regard, a very decent Riisager 'Orchestral Works' disc - featuring the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard and a brief but significant guest appearance by Håkan Hardenberger - amounts to a preface to the edition. This came out originally in 1997 (as 8.224028), but in 2010 Dacapo re-released it with cover art subsequently, and conveniently, imitated by the three 'Symphonic Edition' discs: see review of all three predecessors. 

In fact though, there are yet two further Dacapo discs, from 2005 (8.226022, review) and 2008 (6.220527, review), that certainly belong in any orchestral edition, not least because the first - Riisager's 'Arctic' ballets Qarrtsiluni and Månerenen - was recorded by Holten and the ASO. 

Riisager's symphonies are, in a sense, sui generis, and will not necessarily appeal to audiences accustomed to the more orthodox symphonic fare of Gade, Nielsen, Langgaard, Hamerik or Glass. In fact Riisager applied the label 'symphony' to non-sonata-form works that in some ways are little different to orchestral suites of characteristic pieces or ballet sections. Always something of a maverick in Danish music, he published an article in 1940 proclaiming "The symphony [...] dead - long live music!" Unlike many contemporaries, he showed no interest in following in Nielsen's footsteps: "The very thought of 'continuing' Carl Nielsen's work is a poor idea," he wrote, "because it has after all been done better - that is, by Nielsen himself - than it can be done in the future." 

Riisager's scores certainly eschew the rhetorical longwindedness often associated with the Teutonic tradition - indeed, none of the five symphonies exceeds twenty-five minutes, and three come in below twenty. Melody-rich, harmonically consonant and lucidly structured, the symphonies and other orchestral works further augment their audience-friendliness with an almost constant rhythmic vitality. As there are rarely any darker or serious episodes, and virtually no references to jazz or modernism, Riisager might be said to have a very 19th-century 'sound', yet in fact the neo-Classical, even neo-Baroque, textures that characterise large sections of these scores hark back further still. 

For those yet to commit to this cycle, the present volume may well prove the most rewarding. The opening Summer Rhapsody is an aptly sunny blend of folk and joke, whilst the elegant five-movement Sinfonia Concertante is as much a symphony as the numbered five are - or indeed are not. The Sinfonia Gaia has nothing to do with Mother Earth: this is an Italian title in which gaia means 'merry'; the notes imprudently translate it as 'Gay Symphony'. This is equally misleading - the recent outbreak of the Second World War was naturally on Riisager's mind and the work mines a sizeable vein of irony. On the other hand, a sense of hope clearly predominates and the work finishes on an emphatic upbeat. Written long after the war had ended, Riisager's Sinfonia Serena was, regrettably, his final utterance in the genre. Stylistically, the work pretty much takes up where the Gaia had left off, although the scoring is now for strings and timpani alone, and the atmosphere is darker in places, at least in the central lamentoso movement. 

The ASO are in fine form - there is some tremendous brass-playing on the Summer Rhapsody, but the string sections too are worthy of especial mention. Under Bo Holten they have emerged as compelling advocates of Riisager's music. 
As for previous volumes, the disc is embellished by good quality audio and recorded exclusivity - all four works are, rather surprisingly, receiving their first outing on disc. Though the accompanying booklet notes are straight copies in part of the original Dausgaard disc, they are still Dacapo's usual detailed, informative, broadly well written efforts.
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And a second review ...

This release constitutes Volume Three of DaCapo’s ‘symphonic edition’ of the works of Knudage Riisager. This has been slowly appearing over the years - the first volume having been released two years ago.
Riisager is nowadays remembered (if at all) for his ballet music, and this volume completes the recordings of his symphonies, most of which in this series receive their first performances since the time of their original premières. The four works featured on this final disc feature predominantly works in the neo-classical vein. It is surprising to find such an ardent proponent of neo-classical music being so dismissive of symphonic form.
The neo-classical style as espoused by the likes of Hindemith and Stravinsky was probably the major force in classical music between the two World Wars. It found many imitators; but, like the serial movement that followed it, it also attracted many unimaginative composers who found it all too easy to go through the motions demanded by the style rather than be genuinely original. It has to be said that Sinfonia concertante on this disc does sound very like a composer going conscientiously through the motions. The music is determinedly lightweight, with an occasional spicing of bitonality to add a succulent tinge to the sound. The orchestration, one of Riisager’s main strengths in his ballet music, is hardly given much opportunity to make an impression in the determinedly spare scoring for strings.
Nor is the Fourth Symphony, subtitled ‘gay’, much more substantial in content. The heavier orchestration adds a welcome touch of colour, but this is more of a sinfonietta in three movements than a symphony proper. In 1940 Riisager had written an article for the Danske Musikidsskrift entitled “The symphony is dead - long live music!” but two months later he produced this work in which he claimed associations with “the tense political situation”. In fact there is little evidence of this apart from his suggested programmatic titles for the movements: Defiance, Gracefulness andCourage. It was only given one performance, and this recording constitutes only its second outing. Apart from stressful syncopation, there is little obviously defiant rather than just high-spirited in the opening movement. The slow second movement while graceful is more in the nature of an intermezzo.
For that matter, the last of Riisager’s symphonies, the so-called Sinfonia serena in the conventional four movements, is no long-forgotten masterpiece. The orchestration is cut back to strings and timpani. The scoring for the strings is nicely varied; but there is not much that is serene about the busy neo-classical writing here. The scherzo shows the decided influence of Britten’s Playful pizzicato from his Simple Symphony, with something close to an outright quotation at 1.39 (track 11). This symphony received more than one performance, being given at Salzburg by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in 1952. But only the Lamentoso slow movement has much in the way of atmosphere, and even then not much serenity. One wonders why Riisager gave the work this subtitle.
The Summer Rhapsody which opens the disc falls decidedly into the category of ‘light music,’ a succession of folk-inspired melodies in orchestrations that sound remarkably like Malcolm Arnold without that composer’s piquant touches to lend them distinction. Otherwise it is simply a potpourri of Danish folk tunes with decided overtones of Friday Night is Music Night. More certainly not symphonic, however.
One does not wish to discourage record companies from the exploration of the outer fringes of the repertory, but it has to be admitted that there are certainly no works here which were screaming out to be recorded. The music is highly pleasurable, but one suspects that Riisager did not find the symphonic form congenial; maybe his earlier symphonies were more involving. His ballet scores, on the other hand, are more substantial than this: those who wish to explore this aspect of his work are recommended to investigate a 1997 Chandos release conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, which is highly enjoyable.
The performances by the Aarhus orchestra, ably directed by Bo Holten, sound fine and enthusiastic, although the string tone is sometimes a bit wiry; the recorded sound is excellent. One just wishes that the music was more involving.
Paul Corfield Godfrey