It's Christmas again: time for joy, laughter, and… unbearable fear? We tend to overlook the darker side of Christmas, but it's good to remember the shepherds in their fields who were "sore afraid," the Massacre of the Innocents, and the science-fictiony enormity of what Christians believe to have started in Bethlehem almost two thousand years ago. Danish composer Poul Ruders has proven himself to be a master of the macabre, and so he is the perfect man to set this dark side of Christmas to music.
His offhand statement from several years ago that he is a "film composer without a film" has come back to haunt him again and again, but the haunting finally attained corporeality in 1994. That was the year in which he was asked by Danish film-maker Trine Vester to score "The Return of the Light," a ten-minute silent film about the Christmas gospel. Those ten minutes of music are included on this disc. If you want to make your guests fall head first into their egg nogs, slip this score in the CD player between acts of The Nutcracker. Ruders uses a large orchestra and electronically sampled sounds to a create an apocalyptic nativity canvas. The booklet lists thirty cinematic cues and timings so you can follow along. "The contractions begin" at 5:17, and at 7:54 there is a "sinister premonition of the upcoming infanticide." The orchestra's tread is inexorable throughout, and the sampled sounds (including hallucinatory bell effects) are frighteningly atmospheric. This is goose-flesh music.
For more terror, try Ruders's setting of Poe's "The Bells." I wrote about this performance several months ago when it was released as part of Bridge's collection "The New Danes" (BCD 9054). "Lucy Shelton executes her merciless solo line with flamboyance," I wrote, "but she must have been hoarse for a week after all that (appropriate) shrieking and moaning was over." The intervening months have made this work seem ever more important and even more terrifying.
Ruders's Violin Concerto #1, a work from 1981, piquantly distorts the style and the letter of the Italian Baroque period. Compared to the other works on this disc, this is airy music, but there is palpable uneasiness (some would say "revenge") is twisting bits of The Four Seasons like pasta around Ruders's sharp harmonic forks. This performance is lighter than the one by a Danish team on Unicorn-Kanchana. Finally, the relatively simple timbres of the Étude and Ricercare's surface mask its obsessive-compulsive interiors. As Ruders points out, "Ricercare" means "to search," and if you think of Theseus and the Minotaur, you won't be far from appreciating this work. David Starobin, always a fine advocate of modern classical music for guitar, was the work's original performer, and this recording must be considered definitive.
Copyright © 1996, Ray Tuttle