Langgaard: String Quartets 1 & 5
05 November 2014
John MillerThis final volume of Langgaard's complete String Quartets has, according to Dacapo, two world première recordings. The success of the Nightingale String Quartet has also been hailed world-wide for so expertly assuming the mantle of Rued Langgaard's visionary music. In September 2014 the Nightingale Quartet was awarded the prestigious Gramophone award 'Young Artist of the Year' for their work on the Langgaard String Quartets.
Tim Frederikson, professor of chamber music and viola in the Royal Danish Academy of Music, provides an informative introduction as a booklet essay about the background of preparing the three volume set of recordings, which puts all the wonderful final performances into perspective. The aim of the whole project was to demonstrate Langgaard's striking musical personality and his great mastership of instrumentation for the string quartet. Frederikson was, and still is, a teacher and coach for the Nightingale members, and relates that the scores had many very challenging passages for each instrument to conquer. He remarks also that a very tight ensemble is required, with the required expressive register unexpectedly ranging from lush Romanticism to volcanic drama. Together with the artistry and rich sonority of the Quartet's playing, bolstered by their collective virtuosity, their impeccable ensemble gives the illusion of them sharing a single instrument. Such a willing combination of personalities, rather than expressing individual personalities, is a relative rarity on the quartet scene.
The other important behind-the-scenes issue is that of preparing final scores from the very many alterations and internal borrowings so characteristic of the pragmatic composer. The string quartets had been so rarely played that the work of making final scores had hardly begun, thus Frederikson and the Nightingale members had to study the composer's MSS and his wife's transcriptions (in the Royal Danish Library). Working in parallel with the recordings, this resulted in a volume production by the Rued Langgaard Edition so that there is now a body of written music played through, corrected and ready for use.
Another aspect which required attention before recording started was coming to agreed decisions about Langgaard's notations (or lack thereof), which were not always easy to make. The composer had not been very helpful about dynamic markings, yet he was obsessed with his technique of many rapid speed changes in most of his works, and these are clearly marked. Without a previous living tradition to draw on, the Quartet had to explore this unknown territory, and as Frederickson says in the booklet, they hope that their recorded interpretations will inspire new ideas and also introduce these delightful pieces to a wider audience.
Each volume comprised pieces which selected for their 'atmospheres'; SA-CD 1 has a strong dramatic element (Langgaard: String Quartets Vol. 1 - Nightingale String Quartet), SA-CD 2 demonstrates poetic and idyllic expression (Langgaard: String Quartets Vol. 2 - Nightingale String Quartet), while SA-CD 3 has quartets with both aspects, thus making a neat summation.
The three works here are the First Quartet (BVN 68), 1914-15, rev. 1936 (World Première), Fifth Quartet (BVN 189) 1925, rev.1926-38 and String Quartet Movement 'Italian Scherzo' (BVN 408), 1950 (World Première). Langgaard was only 21 years old when composing the First Quartet, and the 'Italian Quartet' was composed only two years before his death. Intriguingly, this was part of a planned String Quartet, the genre which he had picked up again. However, after the Scherzo was complete (it took him only half an hour), the disillusioned composer wrote "Can't be bothered composing the remaining parts, perhaps to no avail!" His continuous battle between his visionary approach and the conservatism of the Danish musical establishment had taken its toll once more.
It goes without saying that the performances here once more demonstrate their uncanny affinity to illuminate Langgaard's string music, taking the wild changes of mood so characteristic of the composer as if they were entirely natural, and also conjuring many exquisite moments from his poetic and romantic lyricism. I noticed this time how they follow Mozart's advice to string players, urging them to only use vibrato sparingly. This the Nightingales do; sequences of empty 5ths on the violins are vibrato-less, as are the lower regions of the viola and cello in more abrasive moments; conversational exchanges are sometimes conducted with less or no vibrato, while achingly beautiful melodies are given plenty.
I've already mentioned Frederikson's preface in the booklet (in English and Danish), there is also a succinct but very useful biography of Langgaard, helpful notes on each Quartet and an article on the Nightingales.
Multichannel mode gives a listeners a fine seat in the wonderful acoustic of the Concert Hall at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, which is near-perfect for chamber music. The sound matches the superb music-making to produce very satisfying listening indeed. The stereo track is also well balanced, if not quite so redolent of the Hall's instrumental bloom.
DaCapo's full set of Rued Langgaard's String Quartets is a triumph in musicianship and engineering; it already seems to have been added to the new understanding of the composer and his wild work. Followers of the Langgaard restoration should certainly hear these discs, and lovers of string quartets may well be very surprised at what they have been missing.