PER NØRGÅRD: Symfonier 4 & 5
16 June 2016
Per Nørgård has written eight symphonies, just one element in an output of more than 400 works that ranges across nearly every conceivable genre. At the age of almost 84, his productivity shows little sign of slackening off. There may well be more to come, and there is a case to be made that Nørgård is the most distinguished composer writing symphonies today. And while the deepest roots of these works may be anchored in Sibelius and Nørgård’s teacher Vagn Holmboe, like all great originals, Nørgård has consistently taken symphonic form and moulded it to his own expressive and technical purposes. There’s never the sense that his music is retracing its steps or revisiting territory.
Dacapo began its recordings of these works that are so central to Nørgård’s development seven years ago, with Thomas Dausgaard conducting the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in the Third and Seventh. Sakari Oramo and the Vienna Philharmonic added the First and Eighth Symphonies in 2014 and now John Storgårds’ pair of discs (which have to be bought separately) complete the cycle, with exemplary performances from the Oslo Philharmonic in crystalline recordings that fasten on every sonic detail in the scores.
As with the series as a whole, these four symphonies are utterly different from each other. The Second (completed in 1971) was the first in which Nørgård employed his very personal take on serialism, his so-called “infinity series”. With its chiming bells and explosive brass fanfares, the single-movement work is in many respects an attempt to discover just what the potential of that technique might be. The Fourth and Fifth then go exploring in very different directions. The compacted Fourth (1981) is rhythmically fierce and darkly austere, reflecting Nørgård’s discovery in the late 1970s of the work of the Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli, while the Fifth ratchets up the intensity even more, with five movements in which every parameter seems pushed to extremes.
But of these four works, the Sixth Symphony (1999) is for me the most extraordinary. It carries the subtitle At the End of the Day, though there’s nothing valedictory about its three movements, which seem to conform to a classical plan of a big discursive opening movement, followed by a slow second and then a brief, upbeat finale. Except nothing is as cut and dried as that; this music constantly opens up new territory, spawning luminous fresh ideas right up to the closing bars. It creates an exhilarating, sometimes revelatory musical journey, but then what all these symphonies offer is unlike anything any other composer is writing today.