Wilhelmina Smith, a Revelatory Solo Cello Release


ODE 1381-2

I think I can say with assurance that the unaccompanied cello repertoire begins with the Bach solo cello suites. But the concept of this kind of music being worthy of public performance began with Pablo Casals in the early 20th century. Indeed the lovely Bach suites regularly get recorded and performed live pretty frequently with appreciative audiences.

What is generally lesser known is that there exists a large repertoire of unaccompanied cello music which was created in the post Bach era. That’s nearly 300 years and most of this repertory remains largely unknown and, in may cases, unperformed. Rather than attempting to list these I refer the interested listener to the list here on Wikipedia. The list is not exhaustive but it is a fair representation of the extant music.

Wilhelmina Smith, having already produced a fine recording of unaccompanied cello music by Finnish composers Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho, now surveys works of this genre by Danish composers Per Nørgård (1932- ) and Poul Ruders (1949- ).

The quite excellent liner notes by Søren Schauser do a great job of providing a context and a basic analysis of what the listener is hearing in these works. He also provides some historical context and a fellow Dane’s impression of the deeper associations which might be felt by a Nordic audience. But these works are not insular in their intent or their presentation. Make no mistake that these are major works which will speak to all who care to hear.

I have made no secret of my personal love of the music from the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Faroe Islands, and Iceland). And this disc serves to bolster my enthusiasm further. These works span the years 1953 to 1976 and embody largely neoclassical and and post-romantic styles which are very friendly to the ear.

The sheer nakedness of a performance on an instrument usually embedded in a larger context (accompanied by piano or electronics, in a string quartet, or in a symphony orchestra) brings an intense intimacy to the performance. The performer is fully exposed and the music relies on exactly that intensity. Yes, this is a recording but it is not difficult to imagine these performances eliciting reverent silences, of breaths being held, of a level of engagement that elicits rapt attentions.

Completists will be thrilled to have all three of Per Nørgård’s three Solo Cello Sonatas. Nørgård, an internationally regarded master, is better known for this large orchestral works and concertos but here we get to experience him at his most intimate. The first so called “sonatas” appears to take a more classical approach. Even the naming of the three movements (Lento ma espansivo – Allegro non troppo, Tranquillo, Allegro con brio) suggest a more classical approach. This largely tonal piece has both romantic and neoclassical aspects with soaring melodies and classical developments. The second sonata, subtitled “In due tempi” is unusual in that its two movements are separated by compositional dates separated by 27 years. One thinks of Felix Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture separated by 17 years from the subsequent incidental music. So we have a first movement form 1953 followed by a second movement from 1980. This second sonata has much in common with the sound world of the first but the second movement does hint at a more mature style in kind with other works from that historical period. The third sonata, in three movements as was the first, is from 1999 and it is most clearly of a later style. It carries the subtitle, “What – is the Word!”. The movement titles (Prayer, Outcry, Prayer II) are clues to the more deeply existential mood of this piece. Still using basically tonal language, this sonata seems to describe more painful and introspective moods.

Now we come to a work by Poul Ruders (1949- ), “Bravourstudien” (L’Homme Armé Variations) (1976). This is essentially a set of variations on the medieval tune, “L’Homme Armé” (The Armed Man). It is cast in 10 movements (Overture, Recitative, Serenade 1, Potpourri, Etude, Intermezzo, Fantasia, Serenade 2, Finale: Variation classique, L’Homme armé). It is perhaps more deconstruction than classical variation but one need know nothing of the composer’s compositional techniques to appreciate the results.

This is not the first recordings of these works but these performances and the clean Ondine records sound make this release a welcome addition to the ever expanding discography of solo cello repertory and the music of Nordic master composers. You must hear this.

Poul Ruders’ Fifth Opera is Another Gem from Bridge Records


Bridge 9257

Bridge records is an outstanding company which has taken on the production of several “complete works” sets of some of the finest 20th and 21st century composers (Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Harry Partch et al).  A combination of excellent scholarship, top notch musicians, and state of the art recording techniques virtually assures that these will be definitive productions.  Any Bridge release is a cause for celebration and this is a fine example of why that is so.

Poul  Ruders  (1949- ) is the subject of one of those complete works projects.  If you like modern classical and haven’t yet encountered this composer you are in for a treat. Ruders is a highly skilled composer with positively lucid orchestration skills. I first encountered his work on the 1988 album Manhattan Abstraction which led my hungry ears to the 1992 Bridge release Psalmodies, then Gong/Tundra on Chandos and now anything with Ruders’ name on it compels my attention.

This release contains Ruders’ fifth opera. It is a relatively brief (all on one disc) but very charming piece in which producers David Starobin and Becky Starobin play multiple roles including as librettists, conductor (David Starobin shares conducting duties with Benjamin Shwartz), and production design all done with loving attention to detail.

13th child

The opera is a charming little fairy tale which showcases Ruders’ facility with drama. Speaking of the composer’s style (this reviewer hears him, especially in his earlier works, as a sort of noisy modernist but one who has not abandoned lyricism) is ultimately a minor detail because his music engages (as opposed to challenges) the listener in the natural flow of the narrative.  This is a very listenable and entertaining little opera whose two acts fit on a single CD.  Included is a set of notes and the libretto in a beautifully designed slipcase.

The opera was a joint commission from the Odense Symphony and the wonderfully adventurous Santa Fe Opera.  It is a fairy tale opera with a happy ending.  I won’t go into detail as to the story except to say that it follows some of the more charming conventions of fantasy including kings, queens, princes, successors, family conflicts, and magical occurrences which move the story along.  The recording is wonderful as per the standards of the Bridge brand and the performances are heartfelt.  Any opera lover will likely love this release and anyone interested in contemporary composition, particularly of the wonderful Poul Ruders must have this record.