Summer heat – Poul Ruders’ Solar Trilogy

by Ben Hogwood

After yesterday’s languid summer overtones made by Debussy, I have opted for a very different portrayal of heat in today’s selection. The Danish composer Poul Ruders wrote his celebrated Solar Trilogy between 1992 and 1995, describing in it the life and behaviour of the Sun.

This time we get an immediate sense of the overwhelming heat generated by our nearest star from the off. It is fascinating to compare Ruders’ writing with that of Holst in The Planets. Here Ruders portrays the sheer solar energy at work, using all corners of the orchestra to create some truly vast sounds. This is modern music that responds really well to repeated listening, and could easily be used as part of a film or game soundtrack.

The trilogy begins with a stunning stroke in the form of Gong, a piece that seethes with activity and rhythmic drive, before moving onto the central Zenith, whose atmosphere grows very gradually but with considerable tension.

Finally Corona describes an eclipse of the sun, with a ‘sizzling’ start, to quote the composer, before running off at a terrific pace. With an insistent drive it radiates outwards, the orchestra effectively a supergiant star.

Danish composer Ruders continues to write a great deal of music with orchestra, and his work is incredibly descriptive and rewarding. To find out more and to hear more of his music, visit his website here – while at the bottom of this page you will find a dedicated Spotify playlist including the Solar Trilogy and the most recent recording of Ruders’ music, with Mahan Esfahani in the recent Harpsichord Concerto. In contrast, the orchestral piece Nightshade of 1986 completes the selection:

On record: Lars Anders Tomter, Aarhus Symphony Orchestra – Poul Ruders: Viola Concerto & Handel Variations (Dacapo)

Ruders Viola Concerto; Handel Variations

Lars Anders Tomter (viola); Aarhus Symphony Orchestra / Marc Soustrot (Viola Concerto), Andreas Delfs (Handel Variations)

Viola Concerto
Handel Variations

Dacapo 8.226149 [65’53”]
Producers Preben Iwan, John Frandsen
Engineers Preben Iwan, Henrik Winther Hansen
December 11/12 2015 (Viola Concerto) and March 18-20 2017 (Handel Variations) at Symphonic Hall, Musikhuset, Aarhus

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Two sizable orchestral works from Poul Ruders (b1949), long among the most prolific of contemporary composers. In their very different ways they attest to a continuing musical evolution as inclusive as it is unpredictable, while never less than fascinating.

What’s the music like?

Not previously recorded, the Viola Concerto was composed during 1993-4 and premiered at the 1994 Proms. Although the lukewarm reception was ostensibly because of Yuri Bashmet’s less than committed rendering of the solo part (an early indication of his increasingly cavalier attitude in live performance), Ruders harboured doubts as to the success of the work itself and opted for a thorough revision in 2013. This involved scaling back the central movement, so it now forms an intensifying interlude between a first movement which unfolds as a continuous polyphonic texture, then a finale that elaborates on earlier material before coming full-circle in a pensive yet by no means tranquil coda. The favourable impression this piece now makes is also owing to Lars Anders Tomter’s assured handling of a solo part the more testing for its understated character, notably the cadenzas that alter the course of the latter two movements.

By contrast, the Handel Variations is Ruders at his most sardonic and even demonic. Written in 2009 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, this substantial 39-minute piece takes its cue from the Bourrée of Handel’s Water Music Suite no.1. The composer relates he had initially intended to write 74 variations on this briefest and most unassuming of themes (one for each year that Handel had lived), but the process of putting it ‘through the wringer’ proved so involving it took 90 variations before this had been played out. The result is among the most quixotic of Ruders’ latter-day works, as it runs the gamut of expressive possibilities while securing continuity by the follow-through of these variations. They also seem to merge into cohesive sub-groups, on their way to a climactic sequence whose affirmation is undercut by the lengthy final sequence which forms a conclusion of decidedly deadpan humour. Such fatalism is itself offset by the always inventive virtuosity of what might plausibly be heard as a large-scale ‘concerto for orchestra’.

Does it all work?

Almost certainly. If momentary doubts persist as to the overall focus of the Viola Concerto, these will likely prove illusory now that this piece has received the sympathetic rendering it needed, while the Handel Variations gives us the essence of an always arresting composer.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The playing of the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra is well attuned to the very different emotional compass of both pieces and is idiomatically directed by conductors of whom it would be good to hear more in the UK. Stephen Johnson provides the informative if occasionally glib booklet notes.

You can read more about this release at the Dacapo website, while for more on Ruders himself, visit his website here

On record: Music For My Love (Toccata)


Brahms (arr. Söderlind) Von ewiger Liebe
Casulana (arr. C. Matthews) Il vostro dipartir
Dean Angels’ Wings (Music for Yodit)
Elcock Song for Yodit, Op. 23
Ford Sleep
Holloway Music for Yodit
Kerem A Farewell for Yodit
Lord (arr. Mann) Zarabanda Solitaria
Pickard …forbidding mourning…
Ruders Lullaby for Yodit
Söderlind 15 Variations on a Norwegian Folktune

Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Mann


The Music For My Love project has its basis in the life, cut short by cancer, of Yodit Tekle – the Eritrean-born partner of Martin Anderson, whose desire to commemorate her in music led to his contacting those composers he knew personally, resulting in over 100 pieces for string orchestra which he intends to record for his Toccata Classics label. This first volume takes in eight pieces and three arrangements, ranging from around two minutes to a full quarter-hour.

What’s the music like?

Appreciably more varied in expression than might be expected given the context.

Among the original pieces, Robin Holloway has written a pensive elegy whose dance-like central section offers but minimal contrast, whereas Poul Ruders contributes a wistful and affecting lullaby. Mikhel Kerem’s miniature amply sustains its rapt atmosphere, while Andrew Ford takes an earlier vocal setting for his gentle round-lay. Steve Elcock conveys a consolatory mood via the subtlest of means, then Brett Dean draws on an earlier piano piece in music of ethereally diffused harmony. John Pickard draws more obliquely upon an earlier cello piece for what is the most animated of these works in its textural contrasts, while Ragnar Söderlind takes the Norwegian folksong Oh, the cooling wind as the basis for 15 variations whose cumulative impact feels a little diffused in context – for all that its emotional consistency is undeniable.

Among the arrangements, the late Jon Lord’s evocative sarabande for string quartet responds effortlessly to Paul Mann’s skilful adaptation. Framing the sequence overall, Söderlind makes of Brahms’s song a threnody of Grieg-like plaintiveness, whereas Colin Matthews draws out the assertive eloquence inherent in a madrigal by the still little-known Maddalena Casulana.

Does it all work?

Indeed, given that it would have been all too easy to assemble a programme unrelieved in its emotional range. Thanks to judicious sequencing of the pieces at hand, this disc amply fulfils its commemorative function while also making for an hour’s absorbing listen in its own right.

Is it recommended?

Absolutely, not least as the Debrecen-based Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra responds with commitment to Paul Mann’s direction. The sound endows the string textures with plenty of space and definition, while booklet annotations are as comprehensive as ever from Toccata.

Richard Whitehouse

Further instalments in this worthwhile project are much anticipated: in the meantime, read more about its continuation via the Toccata Classics website