Per Nørgård: Symphonies 1 & 8
24 June 2014
GeohominidSakari Oramo has built a fine rapport with the Vienna Philharmonia Orchestra
since replacing Lorin Maazel in a Sibelius concert several years ago. Apart from Sibelius, the VPO have played little Nordic music, nor are they renowned for frequently having contemporary music in their repertoire. To invite Oramo back for conducting two of Per Nørgård's symphonies with DaCapo recording the live events is therefore remarkable, particularly as this is the première recording of Nørgård's Eighth Symphony.Nørgård (born 1932) is alleged to be Denmark's most visionary living composer
- and the only composer I have encountered who appears naked on the cover of a book about his music. Sitting on a veranda, he is contemplating a Nordic landscape of lake and forest. Nature in its real and philosophical states is the backbone of his musical inspirations, but not necessarily in a form which we are familiar with. "For me, existence is based on my conception of non-equilibrium as the basis of life at all levels" he tells us.As a symphonist, he is perhaps most able to express his raw conception in the form of absolute music
, and the Eighth is his latest to date. The symphonies do not appear as a series undergoing continuous development, but rather individual cerebral constructions. The clever placing of the little-known Symphony 1 and new Symphony 8 together bridges the composer's symphonic output from youth to high maturity.Symphony 1 Op. 13 (1953-1955, rev. 1956) comes from what Nørgård calls his "Universe of the Nordic Mind"
period and stems from his studies of Sibelius while still a student in his 20s. It has a title, 'Sinfonia austera', which is apt, and in many ways echoes Sibelius' late works, such as Tapiola and the Seventh Symphony. There are three movements, and the first is mostly anguished or deeply foreboding, moving as if in a process of organic evolution, which is compelling to follow, ending with some sort of resolution in a major chord. Tension is high throughout the work, yet there are relaxations into radiant, melting moments, to be dispelled by fearsome orchestral crashes or power-driven drawn-out climaxes. The second movement, marked Calmo molto affetuoso exposes chilly string motifs, and viola solo with a flowing melody, violently crushed by some huge musical behemoth. Next, the last movement is impetuous, chuckling with ironic humour, which passes into a central segment with keening first and second violins, then returns to the opening motifs, transforming some of them into military sounds, battering from side-drums and trumpets, with drums dominating the final bars.In comparison, Symphony Eight (2010-2012) is bright and playful
(in Nørgård's non-equilibrium terms!) with an astonishing arrangement of independent transparent layers. Also in a classical three movement structure, traditionally fast-slow-fast, the opening movement is more enigmatic than anything in the First, not surprisingly so considering Nørgård's maturity. Tentative at first, with entwined woodwind solos gossiping away (wonderful work from the VPO winds), has layered rhythms with muted brass, sliding harmonies, some raucous clowning and frequent interventions by a piano, which is even given a solo.Adagio molto is the mark for the central movement
, which unfolds in densely luminous waves of sound characteristic more of Nørgårds style from his middle phases. The piano appears again in spotlit areas; strings sing a woeful melody, and a series of plaintive woodwinds engage in a chaotic last few bars, completed with strings, then subsiding to nothing. Finally, Più mosso - Lento visionario, the finale, requires virtuoso percussion players setting up glittering textures to eerily combat lurching (drunken?) trumpets. The brilliance and dry humour of the finale finally conjures a lovely violin solo, and impishly at completion all sounds just evaporate.A master of unorthodox orchestration,
Nørgård requires great skill and inventiveness from orchestral players, which the VPO seem more than happy to produce. There are a number of colour-effects which Nørgård uses; they occur in most of his symphonies, and are very prominent in the Eighth Symphony.
- glissandi on strings up to the high harmonics;
- the so-called "beat-tones" on the woodwind instruments (the vibrations that occur when two instruments play 'false', that is, the same note with different intonation);
- a high grace note on the piccolo;
- the deep marcato on the double bass;
- liberal use of the trombone, as a soft accompaniment, as a fluctuating quarter-tone background effect, or as a glissando forte exclamation;
- the extended use of percussion: a deep lion-like growl;
- screeching crotales, which at times bore deep into the ear-drums of the listener.One texture in particular catches the listener's ear
, the combination of a piano, glockenspiel and xylophone, which sounds like a music box. This adds an almost child-like, innocent air and is found in both the First and Eighth symphonies. Sakara Oramo has clearly trained the VPO players to master these instrumental colours and textures, and at the same time to give the music a sweep and purpose which many listeners will find deeply satisfying. In precision, intonation and control of detail, the VPO play at their best and obviously enjoy doing so, in front of an Austrian audience who, despite not hearing this sort of music in the Golden Hall before, are virtually silent in their concentration.DaCapo's regular recording producer Preben Iwan and sound engineer Jens Jamin
have delivered an excellent concert image of the VPO set in its famous long-box hall, full of Nørgårdian minute detail, yet fully allowing the orchestra to excite the hall's rich resonance. I can think of very few VPO recordings from bigger labels which sound so natural.For the long-neglected First Symphony
, I suggest that devotees of late Sibelius should certainly listen to this darkly convincing evocation of the Nordic Mind. Admirers of Nørgård will be pleased to have his Eighth symphony to evaluate and add to their collection. Others may just want to hear what the VPO really sounds like on a good recording. Highly recommended, of course.