Poul Ruders, of Denmark, is a hard man to pigeonhole. Largely self-taught, he has explored a bewildering variety of musical styles and techniques over his long career. By most accounts, his opera The Handmaid's Tale, after Margaret Atwood's dystopian international bestseller, ranks as his most significant achievement. The Copenhagen premiere in 2000, when Ruders was 50, attracted a small army of international music critics, who went forth all fired up with good news. A modest flurry of international performances soon followed and subsided. Despite lobbying by the New York Times, the Metropolitan Opera didn't bite. So now, The Handmaid's Tale is mostly a memory. Happily for those who weren't there, the Copenhagen version survives on CD.
But opportunities to acquaint ourselves with what turns out to be a vast Ruders catalogue do crop up from time to time. We started the show this week with the Symphony No. 5 (2012-13) on a new recording by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under Olari Elis (Bridge 9475).
Marked Tranquillo sognante ("dreamy quiet"), the second of the work's three movements impressed my colleague Paul Janes-Brown as the soundtrack for an imaginary horror movie. I think I know what he was driving at: taking his time, Ruders layers voice over transparent voice, conjuring up an atmosphere of great anticipation. In my mind's eye, I saw mists hovering over a windless ocean but sensed no monsters lurking there. Is it far-fetched to posit an affinity with the sea-swept preludes of Act 1 and Act 3 of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, as unique as they are—and as different one from the other?
Distant Light, the latest from Renée Fleming (Decca 80026096-02), likewise has Nordic connections. Recorded with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Sakari Oramo, the program is in three sections. To open, Barber's beloved Knoxville: Summer of 1915. As the centerpiece, the newly commissioned orchestral song cycle The Strand Settings, by the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, a new signature piece for Fleming. And to close, new arrangements of three songs by Björk, the Manhattan-based pixie-shaman singer-songwriter-producer-actress from Iceland. For novelty value, these would be the ones to beat. So we dropped in on two of them: "Virus" and "All Is Full of Love," both voiced in tones like spun glass, against glimmering, trippy instrumentation fit for the planet Pandora. All in all, the effect is artificial to the max, yet somehow not fake: a potent reminder of Fleming's uncanny technical facility and her occasional penchant for over-the-top expressive choices. She was never the girl next door.·
On to Mieczyslav Weinberg (1919-1996), whose stock, now that he is dead, is rising steadily. Born in Poland into a Jewish family, Weinberg escaped to the Soviet Union at the outbreak of World War II, was soon evacuated to Tashkent, in Central Asia, and there happened to meet Dmitri Shostakovich, some dozen years his elder, who persuaded him to settle in Moscow. Unlike his new mentor, Weinberg never fell into the vicious clutches of Soviet authority, instead going largely ignored. Yet between bread-and-butter assignments from the theater and the circus, he managed to churn out, among much else, 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, and a half dozen operas. Of the latter, pride of place belongs to The Passenger, an enigmatic reckoning with the Holocaust never performed in his lifetime. The belated premiere in the German city of Bregenz in 2010 has gone a long way to put Weinberg's name on the map.
Among his champions, none are more prominent than the violinist Gidon Kremer and his ensemble, Kremerata Baltica, who released their first double CD of instrumental Weinbergiana in 2014 and now are back with another, offering the complete Chamber Symphonies along with the Piano Quintet (ECM New Series 2538/39).
Off the new album, we heard the third and final movement from the Chamber Symphony No. 2, op. 147, for string orchestra and timpani (1987). Marked Andante sostenuto, the narrative evokes some private existential crisis, probing with fierce concentration yet also with remarkable emotional restraint. As it winds down, the energy ebbs to the point of a virtual standstill—from which dark passion surges, only to dissipate again. Paul thought it all very Russian—as opposed to Polish, he explained, citing the high spirits of Chopin and the polka. I would hesitate to generalize quite so freely about the Polish character, or about Chopin, for that matter; to my ear, a German provenance would seem at least as plausible. matter: this was serious music. Severe yet not gloomy, and as such deeply rewarding.
To close, we dusted off The Student Prince, Sigmund Romberg's Broadway smash of 1924, set in old Heidelberg and written to the formula the composer had brought with him from the Vienna of Franz Lehar. Three seasons later, Jerome Kern's revolutionary Show Boat put the old guard out to pasture, but by now, Show Boat is a period piece, too. Having a soft spot for the pop crazes of yesteryear, I had high hopes for John Mauceri's revival of the Romberg, a live radiocast performed five years ago before a live audience in Cologne, Germany. We went straight for what were said to be the showstoppers. The chorus thumping their steins in hearty "Drinking Song," I have to say, aroused no urge in me to thump along. The highly touted Act 1 finale, which quotes the surefire academic anthem "Gaudeamus igitur," likewise had me counting the seconds—until the climax, when when the soprano Anja Petersen soared up to the stratosphere for some dizzy, sustained high notes that made me out loud with sheer joy.
· For the record, the linked article gives Fleming's birthplace as Rochester, New York. In fact, she was born in the town of Indiana, Pennsylvania. If memory serves, the error traces back to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Efforts to correct my copy have been unsuccessful.