Rued Langgaard: String Quartets vol. 1
04 February 2013
Dane Langgaard is one of those composers routinely reduced to a single characteristic by populist music writers. Where Gesualdo is a ‘murderer’ and Brahms—regardless of his age!—an ‘old curmudgeon’, Langgaard is “basically nuts”, as a well-known publication starkly describes him in its review of this CD. Yet it is difficult to criticise the composer for his deeply-held religious beliefs—in that regard his cacoethes has been shared by almost all composers in history. Whereas if he was “nuts” for being an anti-establishment loner, then sanity must surely be overrated.
The string quartets of Langgaard’s generation-older compatriot Carl Nielsen have still to attract the public acclaim they merit. That is due in part to their relative absence from the recital stage, most quartets presumably afraid to venture beyond the solid-gold repertoire of Beethoven, Shostakovich and a few others. In recording terms, on the other hand, Nielsen has been reasonably well served, especially with regard to symphonies, but Langgaard is still at a stage where even his name remains widely unrecognised.
That needs to change, and Danish label Dacapo have been instrumental in setting the wheels in motion, slowly drawing Langgaard out of the shadow cast by Nielsen—hitherto believed by some to be Denmark’s only composer—with their systematic recording of his oeuvre. Pride of place in one respect goes to the 7-CD complete symphonies, recorded by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under the impressive Thomas Dausgaard.
It does not sweep all prizes, however: besides the fairly hefty price ticket, sound quality is nothing special, despite the ‘Super-Audio’ engineering. Indeed, other reviews of the recording under consideration have praised its own technical quality, but that frankly says more about the hearing of certain authors than anything. Audio is certainly good in many respects, but almost fluorescently bright, making the disc’s shortlisting for the 2013 BBC Music Magazine Awards slightly surprising. Even at ‘Super-Audio’ specification, Dacapo’s engineering seems to lag a little behind that of Scandinavian rivals BIS or Phono-Suecia, and in that respect the premium price the ‘SACD’ tag attracts is rather high.
Nevertheless, such are the breadth and depth of Langgaard’s action-packed ‘modernist conservatism’, and so persuasive are these readings—in this regard fully deserving of a BBC or any other award—by the young Nightingale String Quartet, making their debut to boot, that this disc really does demand pecuniary issues be put aside. Some critics do seem to enjoy waxing lyrical over Langgaard’s ‘wackiness’ or ‘eccentricity’, but really his music merely reflects an inventive fecundity and manifold sense of humour that give rise to memorable music without recourse to gadgetry, affectation or cliché.
As far as Langgaard’s quartets go, Dacapo are in direct competition mainly with themselves—a double disc featuring all the above, plus nos. 4 and 5, recorded by the estimable Kontra Quartet in the 1980s, originally appearing on RCA LPs (DCCD 9302). In all, Langgaard wrote about three hours’ worth of music for string quartet, so there should be two more volumes. It appears the Kontra Quartet never did complete their own Langgaard cycle, although in fairness there were still gaps in the scholarship back then. Their accounts of Nielsen’s four (BIS CD-503-04) and Holmboe’s magical twenty (Dacapo 8.207001), by the way, should be on every music-lover’s shelf. Despite the dampened acoustic, the latter is particularly good value, a 7-CD boxed set widely available for half the price of the Langgaard symphonies!
Booklet notes here are extensive and informative, if slightly rambling in translation, and given a suitably noirish cover. The scene is nicely set for volume 2.