Owain Arwel Hughes

Kundåge Riisager: Benzin

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Danish composer Knudäge Riisager recalled the 1930 premiere production of his ballet Benzin as "one of the most famous failures in the annals of the theater." Based on a scenario by humorist Robert Storm Petersen, in spirit it is somewhat similar to John Alder Carpenter's ballet Krazy Kat (1921), which was based on the work of George Herriman. While Krazy Kat was a success, Benzin bombed not once, but twice, both in the original production and in a 1963 revival in which the piece was cut down to nearly half its original length. Despite its checkered reputation, conductor Owain Arwel Hughes and the Danish National Symphony have decided to brave this bad luck work and record the whole ballet, in its original form, for the Danish label Dacapo, in a multichannel hybrid SACD no less.

The sound, as is usual for most Dacapo SACDs, is terrific. Arwel Hughes' and the Danish National's performance are both carefully done and imbued with a spirit of brio, however lurking in the background one gets a sense of "better get this right, because this may not happen ever again." Riisager's music belongs to what is sometimes referred to as his "futurist" period, quite different for Riisager as it might be for others. The music for Benzin is tart and sardonic in the manner of Prokofiev or early Shostakovich but texturally dry and economical in a way that calls to mind Arthur Bliss. For any Danish composer of the 1920s to be thinking in such terms is in itself unusual; despite the presence of innovators such as Carl Nielsen and Herman Sandby, Denmark was in a general sense resistant to modern trends early in the twentieth century. Benzin was first staged by a choreographer who had failed earlier in attempting to mount modern works and won the job over another, more suitable candidate in a power grab. However, even the better choreographer probably still would not been able to make a successful ballet out of Benzin, as Petersen's scenario -- even as it sounds okay on paper -- is stupidly conceived in terms of how it would play on-stage. Benzin could hardly avoid seeming somewhat insulting to its patrons. In short, a young man from the city runs out of gas on his motorcycle in a country village. A country lad offers to go fetch a tank of gas, and while he is gone, the man city flirts with the country boy's girlfriend. When country gets back, there is a moment of jealousy, but ultimately the girl is traded for the gas. As the city man resumes his journey, happy petrol flames come out and dance for the audience.

In terms of the music for Benzin, Riisager produced an uneven score that contains flashes of inspiration and is comparable to contemporaneous works such as Shostakovich's score for the film The New Babylon (1929), but not favorably so. The filler, containing Riisager's late orchestral works Archaeopteryx (1949) and To Apollo (1972), is outstanding. In Archaeopteryx, Riisager builds a texture of static sonorities accented by staccato motivic ideas in a structure that looks forward to some of the orchestral techniques of the 1960s, though within a context of expanded tonality rather than atonality. With To Apollo, the by then 70-something composer is familiar with developments in new music and filters a number of gestures owing to the 1920s through a similar format and it is totally unique. These two works taken together have to account for some of the better music Riisager has, and yet it only occupies about 25 minutes on a 70-minute CD. So it will be up to the consumer whether or not to go forward in obtaining Dacapo's Knudäge Riisager: Benzin; some might take interest in it just because it's a ballet called "benzene"; few ideas are more bizarre than that.

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