Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Riisager: The Symphonic Edition - An Unsung Composer Gets Heard

Knudage Riisager 
The Symphonic Edition, Vol. 1 
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra
Bo Holten, conductor 

I have to admit I had never heard of Knudage Riisager before I received this CD (let alone any of his music). But after listening to this outstanding recording, I want to hear more.

Riisager is now recognized as one of Denmark’s greatest composers, although during his lifetime his music was received indifferently, forcing him to support himself in other ways. Riisager studied in Paris in the early 1920’s and was deeply influenced by the cadre of composers there. In this first volume of Riisager’s symphonic works, it’s easy to hear those influences.

Riisager’s orchestral music is written in a lush, post-romantic style, but no matter how many instruments are playing, it always sounds clean and transparent. That Ravel-like elegance is often offset by wry, humorous gestures that one might find in early Stravinsky or Prokofiev. The end result is a music that shows its influences, but remains absolutely unique.

This first volume presents Riisager’s first symphony and four symphonic tone poems. The tone poems, “Danish Pictures 1-4” reference various aspects of Danish life and culture. Structurally, they remind me a little of Richard Strauss’ tone poems. Collectively, the four Danish Pictures show a lot of imagination, both in terms of melodic invention and orchestration.

 Riisager’s first symphony is pleasant work of somewhat modest ambitions, but it succeeds completely in its intent. The structure is well-defined, and the music just sort of ambles along from one major theme to another. And what themes! They’re all very attractive, practically inviting the listener to hum along. The Aarhus Symphony Orchestra plays these works with confidence and precision. Conductor Bo Holten is a composer as well, which may be why the works on this album coalesce so beautifully. The performers believe in this music, and that attitude is infectious.

I'll be revisiting this recording often.

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