Rued Langgaard: The Symphonies
01 January 2013
Hearing Langgaard’s Music of the Spheres for the first time - not to mention Thomas Dausgaard’s marvellous 2012 BBC Prom performance of Symphony No. 11 convinced me of two things: this composer’s indecent - if frustrating - originality and this conductor’s affinity for his music. Recorded over a decade, the works in this sumptuous Dacapo box were released individually to wide acclaim. It’s not the only cycle available; Ilya Stupel and the Artur Rubinstein Philharmonic recorded seven volumes for Danacord in 1990/91, a set much praised by John France in 2001.
Born into a distinguished musical family, Langgaard set himself against the somewhat dour Danish musical establishment with his search for a Romantic/Symbolist idiom. CD 1 is devoted to his First Symphony, premiered - and well received - in Germany just before the Great War. Despite its bucolic title nothing quite prepares one for the Straussian surge and Brucknerian amplitude that characterises this exuberant work. As for the full-bodied, thrustful playing it’s first-rate, and Dausgaard proves a steady steersman, most notably in those frequent perorations which, in lesser hands, could so easily seem otiose.
There’s magic in this symphony, the gentle mood of the second movement, ‘Mountain Flowers’, wonderfully sustained. Textures are surprisingly varied and there are few signs of impending stasis, which is remarkable in such a youthful opus. One might be tempted to invoke Sibelius in the third movement, ‘Legend’, or Strauss in the craggy climb of the fourth, but Langgaard is obstinately original in his means and methods. Only in the rambling finale, ‘Courage’, does the symphony succumb to an element of doggedness and a degree of opacity; that said, any misgivings are swept away by a truly majestic coda that threatens to overbalance but never does.
CD 2 contains the Second and Third symphonies, completing what has been dubbed the composer’s first, youthful phase; his symphonic forms are still broadly traditional and, in this first version of Vårbrud especially, there’s an almost classical symmetry to the writing. Even so, the splendid brass and timp flourishes are as Romantically inclined as ever, with a dash of Korngoldian spray for good measure. Contrast that with the lyric inwardness of the second movement, whose marking ‘religioso quasi adagio’ is sensitively interpreted. This is music - and music-making - of rare beauty and line that briefly sets this composer apart from the crowd.
The maddening thing with Langgaard is that fine writing jostles with music that’s much less impressive. Take the strange third movement of the Second, where the add-on soprano Inger Dam-Jensen combines necessary reach with a somewhat distracting vibrato. Not an entirely convincing work then, but it has some stand-out moments. As for the Third Symphony, it’s essentially a piano concerto whose lusty choral part brings Busoni to mind. Despite playing of commendable impetuosity and sparkle it’s hard to escape the sense that it’s all rather aimless; as always there are some fine passages, but not even Dausgaard and that heart-racing finale can disguise the work’s waywardness.
It seems fitting that the Third Symphony should be subtitled ‘Flush of Youth’, for it marks the end of Langgaard’s first ‘phase’; the next encompasses the rather more rigorous Fourth and Fifth symphonies. ‘Fall of the Leaves’ has strength and sinew, its terseness tempered with rare episodes of striking luminosity. Should we infer a programme here? I’m not sure it’s helpful, for the symphony’s many linked sections suggest internal rigour and structural ambition rather than naive pictorialism. Even the three-minute Tranquillo eschews simple charm for a somewhat more gnarly appeal.
Bluff would be a good description of these two symphonies. The Fifth is given here in both its original and revised versions. They make for a fascinating comparison, the earlier score’s softer edges supplanted by something more bracing and direct later on. Those jaunty, recurring climaxes in the first movement are a case in point; it’s as if Langgaard has taken a solvent to his canvas and revealed the vivid colours and firm brush strokes beneath the diffusing grime. As Danish Fifths go, both are suitably imposing, and Dausgaard’s persuasive readings give them real stature and strength. Not as sophisticated or polished as Nielsen’s or Sibelius’s towering examples perhaps, but engaging nonetheless.
CD 4 covers Langgaard’s third phase, from 1925 to 1945, and encompasses the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth symphonies. At the outset one is struck by the inwardness of the Sixth and its lightness of touch. Dacapo’s Super Audio recording is very impressive indeed, bringing out the transparency of the score’s quiet passages as well as the rude irruptions of brass and timps. At times there’s a more than a hint of controlled Ivesian chaos in the writing, which makes ‘The Heaven-Rending’ a thoroughly entertaining - and occasionally unsettling - listen.
The Seventh Symphony, given here in its revised version, certainly has moments of tremendous swing and energy - not to mention thrilling perorations - but some may find the overall effect rather opaque at first. Despite its Romantic roots there’s none of the heart-on-sleeve appeal one might expect here. Instead we’re confronted with an understated, pleasingly shaped work whose many felicities don’t reveal themselves on first acquaintance. As for the Eighth, which includes a tenor soloist and chorus, it has a ceremonial swagger that’s well caught by the deep, sonorous recording.
Indeed, when it comes to invention the Eighth is the most delightful offering so far; moreover, the often arm’s-length nature of the earlier symphonies is replaced with something altogether more genial and carefree. The choral singing is both animated and incisive, a thrilling counterpart to the strange brass punctuations. Where the Third just slides into bombast at this point the vocal contributions here - including that of tenor Lars Petersen - bring real surge and splendour to the piece. Odd as this may sound, if you like Haydn this good-natured music is sure to please.
We’re at the end of phase three in CD 5, which kicks off with the Ninth Symphony, subtitled ‘From Queen Dagmar’s City’. It shares with the Eighth a buoyant mood, an generosity of spirit if you will, that really shines through in the freewheeling first movement. The humour and point of the second movement is pure delight, and the playing is as deft as one could wish. This is Langgaard at his most accessible, craft and content in a pleasing equilibrium. The bells of the third movement are a surprising turn, and the finale is imbued with a gentle, beaming charm that’s utterly beguiling.
The single-movement Tenth, ‘The Hall of Thunder’, is altogether more trenchant and has some of the strangest sonorities yet heard on this set. Now this piece really does beckon us into Nordic folklore, although any overt programme is tempered by writing of familiar rigour and added instrumental virtuosity. A tad unrelenting, perhaps, but I daresay new listeners will be entranced by the boldness and brio of the piece. As with all the symphonies in this phase, the Tenth is relatively short, although the eternally spinning Ixion’s wheel of the Eleventh Symphony lasts barely six-and-a-half minutes. Dausgaard’s performance of the piece at this year’s Proms went down a storm, the six tubas outrageous and off-the-wall but undeniably entertaining.
CD 6 takes us into the fourth and final phase of Langgaard’s life, from 1946 until his death in 1952. At just over seven minutes the Twelfth Symphony, ‘Hélsingeborg’, is as pithy as its immediate predecessor. The Danish orchestra are as committed as ever, even if the opening could have been tidier. There are vestiges of that earlier openness, but is it fanciful to sense a drawing down of blinds at this point? The Thirteenth, with its intriguing subtitle ‘Belief in Wonders’, is much more conventional in construction and length, yet it has flashes of the easeful Langgaard - perhaps more wistful this time - that infuses the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth symphonies.
His late works are certainly assured, and the Thirteenth has a haunting quality that I found most affecting. This isn’t a composer who induces such sentiments elsewhere, and I suspect in lesser hands the piece wouldn’t seem as heartfelt as it does here. The Fourteenth, ‘Morning’, with its stirring choral start, is simply splendid. Indeed, I was reminded of that mighty greeting to the dawn at the end of Schönberg’s Gurre-lieder, such is the blaze of sound Dausgaard gets from his singers and players. That said, in the second movement Langgaard modulates into something rather more reticent - otherworldly, even - in which the orchestra play with chamber-like concentration and delicacy. This is music of Mahlerian farewell, superbly performed and recorded; and while it’s not quite the summation it appears, it’s certainly the most serene and lovely writing here.
As with so many sets of this nature the final disc - CD 7 - is a bit of a hotchpotch. The last two symphonies - Nos. 15 and 16 - get strong, muscular performances; the former, subtitled ‘Sea Storm’, is considerably enlivened by parts for bass baritone and male chorus. Frankly the piece needs some help, for it strays into the doldrums far too often. It’s hardly the strongest of Langgaard’s symphonies, but it’s not bereft of all colour and excitement, especially in the turbulent, gong-splashed finale. Soloist Johan Reuter is firm and sonorous and the wide dynamics of the recording are especially welcome in the choral climaxes.
There’s renewed heat and vigour in the Sixteenth Symphony, teasingly titled ‘Sun Deluge’, even if it’s a tad overbearing. There’s a degree of brashness too, which is quite invigorating at first but soon palls. No, as a final utterance No. 14 strikes me as much the finest of Langgaard’s last symphonies; as well played as Nos. 15 and 16 are, their incipient banality is likely to be something of a turn-off for newcomers to these works. Loath to end on anything resembling a bum note, I’m happy to say the elegy to Grieg has a dark splendour, Sphinx a glorious inscrutability and Res Absurdia?! a manic countenance that’s more likely to appeal to explorers of this dippy Dane’s odd but invigorating œuvre.
Langgaard fans probably own the individual releases already, but even so the solid quality of this box is very tempting indeed. Those who merely wish to sample this often infuriating music won’t be keen to splash out on the entire set; I’d suggest Nos. 7, 8, 9 and 14 are Langgaard’s most impressive symphonies, and the ones I will return to most often. Oh, and don’t forget to try Music of the Spheres too (Dacapo; Chandos). Some of these SACDs predate the advent of Super Audio recording, but with very few exceptions the sound quality here is first-rate. The discs are housed in half-sleeves anchored to the box; this is rather irksome, as one has to grasp the edge of the playing surface to slide them out.
Music of near genius, quirk and quiddity; this bumper set has it all.