Per Nørgård: Symphonies 1 & 8
11 July 2014
Graham RicksonPer Nørgård's Symphony No. 1 was completed in 1955.
A few years earlier, the composer had written a fan letter to the elderly Sibelius – who was flattered to encounter a fellow musician with such a thorough understanding of his own style. There are plenty of nods to the elder composer in this astonishing symphony, including a brief snatch of Tapiola
near the opening. Most Sibelian is Nørgård's temporal control; different layers of music seemingly operating at different speeds, often linked by repetitive string figures. There's so much going on in the orchestra's lower reaches, the writing for basses, clarinets and bassoons especially distinctive. Huge brassy pileups suggest grinding tectonic plates. A sequence of loud major chords three minutes from the first movement's end is overwhelming. Nørgård subtitled the three-movement work his Sinfonia austera
, and its gruff, raw power still packs a punch – the dour honesty reflecting youthful idealism. We also get the premiere recording of Nørgård's Symphony No. 8, completed in 2011
. Our expectations are again confounded; this is a more eclectic and youthful-sounding work than the coupling. Ideas come thick and fast, and there's some lovely shuffling percussion accompanying the slow movement's string theme. Nørgård's writing beguiles and enchants; big moments magically dissolve or abruptly metamorphose. But despite its surface beauties, this is a harder symphony to get to grips with. The sleeve notes imply that Nørgård was aiming for transparency and lightness, but several of the more brutal gestures suggest the opposite. You'll want to listen to both pieces again though, and how uplifting to encounter yet another composer still full of ideas in his eighth decade. Ripe, dramatic performances from Sakari Oramo and a well-motivated Vienna Philharmonic. Dacapo's sound has body and presence.