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:
of all three predecessors.
In fact though, there are yet two further Dacapo discs, from 2005
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
Contact at artmusicreviews.co.uk
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
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
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