Modern Danish Music with a Touch of Humour

Ruders, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen: BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 28.1.2014 (PCG)

Poul Ruders – Kafkapriccio (2008)
Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen – Symphony – Antiphony (1977)


A short programme without interval presenting two unfamiliar modern Danish works might be regarded as a potential for box office disaster, but in the event there was a surprisingly large audience for this innovative concert to which the conductor contributed a brief spoken introduction. Ruders extracted Kafkapriccio from his opera Kafka’s Trial of which Søndergård gave the first performance in Copenhagen in 2005. It was originally scored for fourteen instruments, but here it was given with expanded string forces which served to better balance the often loud writing for the wind players.

Ruders described the opening movement as “Klezmer-inspired” but one could also detect elements of Weill, Gershwin and jazz in the infectiously phantasmagoric mix full of piquant orchestral effects including Catherine Roe Williams making frequent excavations inside the body of the piano. The depiction of Joseph K’s seduction of Leni in the third movement had real elements of sleaze, with a hint of a strip cartoon.

After the high spirits of the first four movements, the slow and funereal finale came as quite a shock, with the trumpet playing the notes of the Dies irae plainchant into the body of the piano which produced a surprisingly loud halo of resonant sympathetic harmonies. The closing solo for cor anglais was very affecting, leading to a dying fall in the alto flute.

The work by Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen consisted of a very short “symphony” movement under three minutes long and a long series of “antiphonies” which occupied the remainder of the work (over half an hour). The symphony itself was more in the nature of a passacaglia which gradually built up a head of steam by the addition of bodies of instruments until a massive climax was achieved. The second movement opened with a busy ostinato on solo violin which was slowly subsumed under held woodwind chords and seemed to slow down somewhat.

As the work progressed the superimposition of one ostinato on top of another emerged into a positively Latin-American percussion-dominated section with the horns braying away with their bells in the air. This was abruptly followed by a ragtime piano solo, with suspended Satie-like harmonies beautifully played by Catherine Roe Williams; but the effect was not enhanced by the queasy-sounding artificial string harmonics which surrounded them.

The final section was positively Mahlerian in its richly romantic string tone, although the prominent mandolin solo brought surprising echoes of a Mediterranean documentary travelogue; but the ostinati soon began to gather pace again (with very persistent cracks from a pair of slapsticks) before gradually dying away once more. Indeed the slow ‘fade’ at the conclusion was so protracted that there seemed to be no real reason why the music should have ended precisely when it did.

One was very grateful for the opportunity to hear two very interesting modern scores, both of which had something to say and also displayed a welcome sense of humour which can so often be lacking in works peppered with unusual orchestral effects. The orchestra seemed to manage all the sometimes eccentric demands made upon them with style and enthusiasm.

Paul Corfield Godfrey