Per Nørgård: Symphonies 1 & 8
16 June 2014
One day last week a Danish symphonist of no great previous fame found himself with $200,000 to spend in Manhattan. Per Nørgård was winner of the New York Philharmonic’s biennial prize for new music - and the first thing to recognise about his music is that it is unmistakably new. Nørgård sounds like no other composer, north or south. Yet the music is not strange at all; it’s as if you’ve known it all your life.
The Vienna Philharmonic have just recorded his first and (to date) last symphonies, offering a panoptic view of this exceptional composer. The First Symphony, dated 1953-55, was titled ‘Austere’ and took some of its mood, though not its language' from late Sibelius. But if Sibelius had produced an eighth symphony, it would not have been punctuated by the shocks and tremors that Nørgård puts in his lower strings, or the bleak forebodings of his upper winds.
Before this first symphony received its premiere, the composer was sucked into the abstractions of the French avant-garde – never, however, losing his wintry humour or his capacity for surprise. The Eighth Symphony, premiered in 2012, has wit and warmth, as well as a breadth of landscape that may seem familiar from Danish film-noir and detective serials.
It sounds like fun to play and the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Sakari Oramo, make light work of its sharp turns and mood swings. If you discover only one living composer in 2014, make it Per Nørgård.