Rued Langgaard: Music of the Spheres
25 March 2011
Review - Recording of the Month
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
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
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.