“Nightshade Trilogy” = POUL RUDERS: Nightshade; The Second Nightshade; Final Nightshade—Capricorn/Knussen—Odense Sym. Orch./ Mann/ Yoo—Bridge 9433, 50:38 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
If you’re looking for the perfect disc to give a friend for Halloween, this is it. All three works explore the dark side of music’s emotional terrain. On the other hand, Poul Ruders (b. 1949) is known for contrasting extremes that challenge the musical intellect. The composer states that this album is “a collection of compositions that delve into basic musical contrasts such as high/low, loud/soft, fast/slow, and so on.” Written over a span of 17 years, the three Nightshades also provide contrasts in the number of orchestral forces, the juxtaposition of instruments with high and low pitches and horizontal separation of dark and light within a work.
It wasn’t until 1980, in his Chamber Concerto Four Compositions, that Ruders was able to fuse his many eclectic styles into a mature musical personality that spoke to audiences. This is the tenth disc of his music on the Bridge label. Although his Danish heritage was somewhat sheltered from the Boulez-inspired Darmstadt obsession that overtook Europe in the 1960s and ‘70s, Ruders’ music is closer to Berg and Messiaen and less astringent than his Finnish contemporaries Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Sarriaho and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Even though tempos and style can change suddenly, there is an emotional and musical sense present. He composes works in all genres: choral, chamber, orchestral, solo music and operas (The Handmaid’s Tale, 1996-98) was well received. Ruder is a master of using the colors of a large 21st-century orchestral palette, which makes the works on this disc endlessly fascinating.
Nightshade refers to a variety of a family of plants and vegetables (potato and eggplant are examples), but here it specifically refers to a poisonous variety, Atropa Belladonna. The dark and creepy Nightshade (1986) for ten high and low instruments—alto flute/piccolo, oboe, contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon, french horn, trombone, percussion, piano, violin and double bass—is a tapestry of freaky and scary sounds that make the soul tremble. Capricorn plays it with menace that reveals Ruder’s orchestral brilliance.
The Second Nightshade ‘A Symphonic Nocturne’ (1991) for chamber orchestra continues exploring the dark underbelly of orchestral terror in the first section—the relentless cacophony of “sliding violins, yapping brass and thumping bass drum” finally yield to a second section that is a cold and moonlit chorale pierced by calm shrieks. It’s positively chilling to the bone.
Final Nightshade for full orchestra—commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in 2003—provides some relief. Ruders begins the work using a borrowed a tune from his 1985 chamber work Corpus cum Figuris, which first appears in the violas and is taken over by a full orchestra, transforming into a 25-minute polyphonic work that contains none of the instrumental effects found in the first two Nightshades. He again uses the lower instruments to project an ominous underpinning which is contrasted by the upper registers (flute, oboe, clarinet, and violins). There’s a meditative quality in the first few minutes that’s intriguing and comforting. But an air of anxiety creeps into the work—the “sepulchral-tombstone” beginning—that was found in the first Nightshade. Here the composer weaves high and low sounds together, creating musical variety and interest that reveals a constantly changing kaleidoscope of orchestral colors. The emotional tenor is still on the darker side, but there’s an excitement here that is magnified by the symphonic forces. Although Ruder’s music on this disc has an ominous sound, there’s a warmth and creativity here that’s a reason for the many recordings he’s enjoyed. The Odense Symphony Orchestra performs with intensity and the sound on this recording is superb. Those looking for something different will not be disappointed.
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