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25/03/2011

Music of the Spheres: "CD of the Month"

Review -  Recording of the Month

Music Web International

As outsiders go, the Danish composer Rued Langgaard isn't nearly as radical as, say, the Swiss artist-composer and asylum inmate Adolf Wolfli, whose dark temperament and tragic circumstances helped define the extremes of Art brut, or ‘outsider art'. As it happens, the last Dacapo disc to come my way was Per Nørgård's extraordinary opera Der göttliche Tivoli, based on the tormented - but strangely uplifting - inner world of Herr Wolfli. For all his oddities, Langgaard is right at the other end of this spectrum, his music - as represented by the works on this disc - characterised by a compactness of structure and utterance. Make no mistake though, the idiom is clearly late-Romantic, just not of the extrovert, heart-on-sleeve variety one associates with Mahler, for instance.

Given that Music of the Spheres is scored for large orchestra, soprano soloist, chorus and ‘distant orchestra', one might be forgiven for thinking it's bound to be a variation on Mahler's ‘singing universe', a recap of the latter's Symphony of a Thousand. It's nothing of the kind; from its near-inaudible beginning and the first appearance of those tremolando strings and timp crescendi, it's clear this is going to be a much more concentrated, interior piece. Indeed, Langgaard uses his forces sparingly throughout, and the result is a series of discrete - yet curiously connected - musical episodes, the strangeness of which piques one's interest at every turn.

Yes, Music of the Spheres does have a specific programme, the Symbolist influence mirrored in titles such as: ‘Like sunbeams on a coffin decorated with sweet-smelling flowers'. They are highly evocative pointers, and sometimes oblique, but they don't ‘unlock' this music in any meaningful way. For instance, ‘Like stars twinkling in the blue sky at sunset' could conceivably be suggested by those pulsing timp figures, but all notions of simple pictorialism are quickly dispersed when those drumbeats become darker and more insistent. In that sense, all that matters are the antinomies contained in the score itself, the inner dialectic if you like, and that needs no explanation.

Music of the Spheres has a constant flicker or pulse, a connective tissue that links all 15 sections. Dausgaard and his Danish orchestra manage the finely graded dynamics of Langgaard's score very well indeed, so that even when we hit those nodal climaxes - the all-pervasive timp crescendo and brief flare of cymbals in Longing - Despair - Ecstasy - are powerful yet contained. Textures are transparent throughout, Dacapo's exemplary Super Audio recording homing in on every nuance of this intriguing score. Moreover, the sense of a living, breathing acoustic - another characteristic of the very best SACDs - is ever present.

Voices are introduced in I wish!, albeit the simple repeated phrase ‘Do re me sol fa la', while ‘Chaos - Ruin - Far and near' is not nearly as apocalyptic as its title might suggest. There's an air of understatement here, an asperity even, yet Langgaard subtly modifies these recurring motifs so they seem eternally fresh and interesting. It's a remarkable feat of musical (re)invention.

If you still think that sounds too unvaried for your liking, then just sample Flowers wither; here Langgaard has penned a lovely, evanescent minute-and-a-half of the most fragile music imaginable. Quite extraordinary, and most beautifully played. And while I have yet to compare this recording with Rozhdestvensky's - it seems Dausgaard is much more spacious at times, his Glimpse of the sun through tears clocking in at 6:03 as opposed to the Russian's comparatively swift 5:17. As for ‘The gospel of flowers' Inger Dam-Jensen is the soloist in this atmospherically distant movement.

The new day breaks with a sustained, Gurrelieder-like cry from the chorus. Yet one senses that for all its radiance this dawn is somewhat equivocal, affirmation tinged with a penumbra of doubt; indeed, the wordless choir in The end: Antichrist - Christ is subsumed by those blood-curdling timps and pealing bells. And although the harp-like swirls and final crescendo do seem to strike a more positive note there's still a degree of ambivalence, of uncertainty, as the music fades to silence. Enigmatic to the last, this is an engrossing piece, eloquently played and magnificently recorded.

The Time of the End, which takes its cue from the Book of Daniel, is made up of music and tableaux from the first and second versions of Langgaard's opera, Antikrist. Far from being just a random collection of off-cuts, this work has a strong narrative and sense of momentum - those timps a familiar dynamo - not to mention a real sense of drama. I've yet to hear Antikrist - Dacapo 6.220549 - but on the strength of this distillation I will certainly add it to my wish-list.

Baritone Johan Reuter makes a characterful Bishop Sàl, who joins the anxious chorus in seeking guidance from the false prophet Antichrist, sung by Peter Lodahl. There's a lyricism to both the music and the vocal parts, together with an underlying harmonic richness that we don't hear in Music of the Spheres. The choral singing is splendid, the people's fear made most palpable under the blood-dimm'd skies of Towards the end of the world. But the young Christian woman - sung by Hetna Regitze Bruun, who also takes the part of the Scarlet Woman - is not seduced by his false promises, the impending apocalypse of Catastrophe realised with a simple driving rhythm and tormented gongs. The choral sound is always impressive, even under pressure, and the balance between orchestra and voices is most believable. As for that broad, brass-driven chorale near the end, it sounds simply glorious - even on the disc's fine CD layer -- the work ending with a return to that ur-pulse from the Prelude.

Continuing this spirit of musical and dramatic compactness comes the Requiem-based choral piece Fra dybet (From the Abyss). Langgaard takes sentences from the ‘Lux aeterna' and ‘Dies irae' and weaves them into a work of real originality and power. And yes, there is a liturgical feel to this music, but in the theatrical, Berliozian sense rather than the conventional, pious one; there's also a very discreet organ part, but the soloists and chorus are transported, inspired. No fuss, no histrionics, this really is music from the heart, a splendid finale to a fabulous disc.

This Dacapo release has impressed me in so many ways, not least for its commitment to music that's hardly mainstream, but which deserves to be more widely heard. As always, such projects require the strongest advocacy, and that's just what Thomas Dausgaard provides, both here and in the other Langgaard works he's recorded for Dacapo. Throw in very readable liner-notes, full texts and translations and top-notch sonics and you have a real cracker. Absolutely not to be missed.

By Dan Morgan
 





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