Classical CD Reviews

MARTINŮ: Concerto for Harpsichord and Small Orch.; Chamber Music No. 1 (“Les fêtes nocturnes”); Les rondes; La revue de cuisine: Ballet du Jazz – Robert Hill, harpsichord/ Holst-Sinfonietta/ Klaus Simon, cond. & piano – Naxos
KNUDÅGE RIISAGER: The Symphonic Edition, Vol. 1 = Ov. for Erasmus Montanus, Op. 1; Klods Hans (Jack the Dullard); Symphony No. 1, Op. 8; Comoedie; Fastelavn (Carnival) – Aarhus Sym. Orch./ Bo Holton – Dacapo

A beguiling pair of releases: two composers who learned their craft in 1920s Paris, and two very different approaches to neo-Classical style.

Published on October 19, 2012

MARTINŮ: Concerto for Harpsichord and Small Orch.; Chamber Music No. 1 (“Les fêtes nocturnes”); Les rondes; La revue de cuisine: Ballet du Jazz – Robert Hill, harpsichord/ Holst-Sinfonietta/ Klaus Simon, cond. & piano – Naxos</br>   KNUDÅGE RIISAGER: The Symphonic Edition, Vol. 1 = Ov. for Erasmus Montanus, Op. 1; Klods Hans (Jack the Dullard); Symphony No. 1, Op. 8; Comoedie; Fastelavn (Carnival) – Aarhus Sym. Orch./ Bo Holton – Dacapo

MARTINŮ: Concerto for Harpsichord and Small Orchestra, H. 246; Chamber Music No. 1 (“Les fêtes nocturnes”), H. 376; Les rondes, H. 200; La revue de cuisine: Ballet du Jazz, H. 161 – Robert Hill, harpsichord/ Holst-Sinfonietta/ Klaus Simon, cond. & piano – Naxos 8.572485, 75:14
****:

KNUDÅGE RIISAGER: The Symphonic Edition, Volume 1 = Overture for Erasmus Montanus, Op. 1; Klods Hans (Jack the Dullard), Op. 18; Symphony No. 1, Op. 8; Comoedie, Op. 21; Fastelavn (Carnival), Op. 20 – Aarhus Sym. Orch./ Bo Holton – Dacapo 8.226146 [Distr. by Naxos], 64:52 ****:

These two composers have distinguished traditions of nationalistic music behind them, but they both cultivated a more cosmopolitan compositional style. They both lived and studied in Paris in the 20s; one would think their paths must have crossed since they both studied with Albert Roussel, French neo-Classicist par excellence. Yet their compositional styles within the neo-Classical idiom are quite distinct.

Like Falla and Poulenc, Martinů helped reinvent the harpsichord as a perfect vehicle for neo-Classical expression. The Harpsichord Concerto is spiky, brittle, with the requisite driving rhythms. It clearly reflects the influence of Roussel but also of Stravinsky in its emotional coolness and its spareness of means. On the other hand, Chamber Music No. 1, written in the year of Martinů’s death (1959) and his last tribute to French neo-Classicism, has Impressionistic overtones as well, a certain dreaminess that recalls the late chamber pieces of Debussy, as well as Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, which also features a prominent place for harp in its instrumentation.

According to conductor Klaus Simon, Les rondes of 1930 “is closer to Janáček than any other [work] by Martinů.” The title “refers to the round dances of the Russian ‘chorovod,’” but Martinů had originally titled it Moravian Dances. It may indeed be influenced by the folk dances of Martinů’s native land, but again, the instrumental touches—the tootling winds and trumpets, the scraping, braying strings of the Allegro vivo finale—recall Stravinsky far more than Janáček, so I wouldn’t exactly agree with Simon’s assessment that “it is a work of unadulterated national feeling.”

Finally, a work in a genre that would later become Knudåge Riisager’s specialty: the ballet Le revue de cuisine, subtitled Ballet du Jazz. Its weird little libretto recounts the troubled love life of Pot and Lid, how the romance is nearly derailed by the seductive machinations of Whisk and Dishcloth, who try to corrupt Pot and Lid respectively. In the interim, Lid rolls into a corner where she languishes until dislodged via deus ex machina—a huge disembodied foot that kicks her back into the middle of the kitchen. Pot and Lid are reunited to general rejoicing in the form of a lively final dance.

It seems clear why the ballet has rarely, if ever, been performed since the debut, but Martinů’s jaunty score, exiled to the archives of the Paul Sacher Institute until fairly recently, deserves to be heard. Its jazz influences are pretty convincing; Martinů must have spent a lot of time soaking up the sounds in the clubs of Paris. The music is attractive and quite inventive in spots, reason enough to get this disc, though of course the enticements don’t stop there. Le revue de cuisine has been recorded before, but I doubt any more piquantly than in this bright-eyed performance from Simon and his Freiburg-based band, named, a little oddly, in honor of Gustav Holst. The Holst-Sinfonietta specializes in contemporary music and appears to have a natural affinity and sympathy for Martinů. Harpsichordist Robert Hill also deserves kudos for his alert playing in the Concerto. Naxos’s sound is as bright and lively as the performances. A definite winner.

Unlike Martinů, Danish composer Knudåge Riisager (1897-1974) seems to have avoided the jazz clubs; his music of the 20s and 30s taps into the lighter side of French neo-Classicism. It’s witty in the manner of Ibert and Francaix, but the humor is more rough-hewn, less sophisticated. The most enjoyable work on the disc, Klods Hans, is a sort of cross between Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel and Malcolm Arnold’s Beckus the Dandipratt, except that Riisager’s Hans is not a wise guy but a, well, clod invented by that great Dane Hans Christian Anderson, though Riisager maintained that his work was “intended as a free fantasia over the Danish lad who, straddled over his billy-goat, rushes straight through the ranks of snobbish self-importance and conceited prejudice. The piece thus has no connection with the plot of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale.” Be that as it may, it’s colorful, bumptiously humorous, with mock-military asides from the prominent snare drum—as full of nonstop action as Strauss’s work is, with its highly detailed program.

Comoedie, described as a “prelude to a Danish comedy,” is in the same vein of hustling, bustling good humor. These pieces are Numbers 2 and 4 respectively in a series that Riisager entitled Danish Pictures. Number 3 is Fastelav, while Number 1 is the precocious Overture for Erasmus Montanus (1918-20), another comedy overture, this one purporting to be an introduction to the play of the same name by Danish playwright Ludvig Holberg (celebrated in Grieg’s Holberg Suite). Again, Riisager asserts that the work does not describe either characters or incidents in the play but rather captures the “spirit” of Holberg’s comedy. However, it clearly pokes fun at Holberg’s Rasmus Berg, a country Jake who proves, after returning from the university in Copenhagen, that a little learning is a dangerous thing. He Latinizes his name to Erasmus Montanus and pesters his parents and the parents of his fiancé Lisbed with his pseudo-learning until the latter pair forbid their daughter’s marriage. A little minuet toward the end of the piece indicates Rasmus’s capitulation to the forces of reason, and presumably he and Lisbed live happily ever after. It’s charming, though not as effective as Riisager’s later pieces. Remarkably, when he offered it to the Dansk Koncert-Forening, a forum for new Danish orchestral music, that body stuffily responded that the music was unplayable. It had to wait four years for its first performance—in the Swedish city of Gothenburg.

Last and decidedly least is Riisager’s Symphony No. 1, which demonstrates that his talents did not lie in the symphonic vein. After its debut in 1926, critics’ reaction was understandably “mixed.” Apparently, some expected a work of the French-influenced avant-garde but instead, apart from some fairly tame dissonances and instances of polytonality, found a piece “of a modernism no more harsh than the schooled present-day ear can easily negotiate.” The names of Stravinsky and Puccini were invoked as influences. Puccini maybe, but Stravinsky? No way!

The upshot of Riisager’s “modernist” gestures seems to be another (extended) comedy overture; the symphony is both light-hearted and lightweight, if not flyweight. Certainly, it’s not the reason to buy this disc. But there are enough other pleasures here, enthusiastically presented by the very fine Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, to merit an unstinting recommendation. Dacapo’s sound is typically excellent: rich, vibrant, capturing string tone in an especially flattering way.

—Lee Passarella




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