Ruders – Four Dances

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COMPOSERS: Ruders
LABELS: Dacapo
WORKS: Four Dances in One Movement; Nightshade; Abysm
PERFORMER: Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Oliver Knussen
CATALOGUE NO: 8.226028

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Poul Ruders (born 1949) has tended to concentrate on orchestral music and opera, but his ear for sonority  on a smaller scale is acute and precise. His ability to conjure up a complete sound world with only a handful of instruments shines through in these pieces for reduced forces – it’s hard to believe that only ten players are involved in Nightshade, for instance.

Ruders reckons that he came to compositional maturity in 1980, when he was in his early thirties, and it’s a measure of the certainty and consistency of his work since then that the Four Dances, composed in 1983, sound as fresh as Abysm from 2000. The pace increases from the Chinese whispers of the first dance, where solo violin traces the melody woven by solo clarinet, through the slow waltz of the second movement and the Stravinskyan rhythmic drive of the third, to the finale, where musical threads are drawn together, though the ending is strangely fragmentary. 

This leads naturally into the much darker world of Nightshade (1987), dominated by subterranean sounds which slither around like a fairy-tale monster: even the brief contrasting passages in a higher register have a sense of menace, throwing light on something perhaps best left undisturbed.

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That feeling of threatening darkness comes to a head in Abysm, where the anchor of tonality, always hinted at, and sometimes almost attained in the earlier pieces, is much more elusive. There’s also something of Birtwistle in the earthy sonorities and grinding rhythms: this is not music to ease the soul, and the central movement for maniacal piano and woodblocks does nothing to lighten the mood. Recorded sound is clear and performances are committed, as you would expect from the BCMG and Oliver Knussen. Martin Cotton