Rued Langgaard: String Quartets Vol. 1
24 May 2012
Langgaard's musical career was mostly blighted by the Danish artistic Establishment, since he persisted to compose in the retrograde late Romantic style, while his peers were intent on absorbing themselves into the turn of the century avant garde. Nonetheless prolific, producing works in most of the musical genres, he was either ignored or vilified, so that few would assist in performing his output.
Thanks to DaCapo's espousal in systematically recording Langgaard's oeuvre, notably the landmark SACD set of symphonies (Rued Langgaard: The Symphonies - Dausgaard), the composer's star is rising. The present issue is the first in a full set of Langgaard's String Quartets by the youthful Nightingale Quartet. They were written within an 11 year period of his early career, from 1914 to 1925, although in some cases he returned to revise them later. There are 10 known, independent compositions by Langgaard for string quartet. However, his erratic working practices of recycling and repeated revisions means that whole movements and certain themes recur in different works.There is an excellent essay in the booklet which explains all this and gives a helpful chronological overview, together with invaluable notes on the musical contents.
This being the maverick Langgaard, don't expect his String Quartets to follow the usual format or content; the remarkable thing about them is their wide stylistic spectrum. Reflecting many of the styles arising during the transition from late Romanticism to Modernism, Langgaard oscillates between the old and the new. String Quartet no. 2 on this disc finds him concerned with representing day-to-day events in Romantic mode, and each movement is given a distinctive title: 'Storm clouds receding' (high-tension, furious energy gradually moving into lyrical calm), 'Train passing by' (a startlingly realistic attempt to get a string quartet to emulate a speeding steam engine), 'Landscape in Twilight' (a charming pastoral motif interleaved with peasant dances) and 'The Walk' (elegiac musings and recollections which become a resolute march and ends with biting dissonance).
String Quartet no. 3 (1924) is pure expressionism, its first movement, marked "Rapacious" being one of Langgaard's most aggressive movements. It is followed by a Presto scherzo marked "Artful", very brief and mysteriously ending with a series of detached pizzicato/slapstring chords. The finale, marked "Scoffing" veers between tranquillity and frenetic movement, culminating in a section marked "Maestoso".
In stark contrast, the String Quartet no. 6 in one movement (1918-19) is typically eccentric Langgaard, often achingly lyrical but passing through a whole gamut of phases, including "Agitato orribilmente". "Burlesco rustico" and "Impetuosa fieramente". It finds rest with wonderfully naive simplicity in a Swedish folk song. Somehow, all of these many sections manage to come together and cohere to produce a meaningful and attractive listening experience, especially when played with such skill and insight as invested by the Nightingale Quartet.
The final work on this disc is a set of variations on an old hymn/chorale, 'O Sacred head! Now wounded!' (1914, rev.1940). This is the most classical of the works for string quartet, springing clearly from the late Beethoven quartets. The solemn, sustained assertion of the theme is moving, and the following seven variations ingenious and inventive.
DaCapo already have a fine set of Langgaard quartets in their catalogue, from the Kontra Quartet. But without a doubt the Nightingale Quartet outshine them, bringing a refreshingly zestful approach which is captivating. They understand the composer's staunch independence and unique personality, his sweet lyricism, passionate romanticism and experimental intellectual temperament. Their tone is pure, ensemble precise and dynamic control superb. Above all, they are not afraid to take risks, just as the composer himself regularly does.
DaCapo's new set also supersedes the old in its marvellous recording quality. The Concert Hall of the Royal Danish Academy is a most sympathetic venue for chamber music, preserving its intimacy yet investing the tone with a realistic bloom.
If you are already a Langgaard fan, this will be an essential aquisition. If you are interested in chamber music in general and are prepared to relinquish preconceptions, you will find fascinating and challenging music here, with hints of absorbed Beethoven, Janáček, Nielson and Bartók - but mostly, and perhaps for some infuriatingly - Langgaard. Highly recommended.