Per Nørgård: Will-o’-the-Wisps in Town
01 December 2012
Nørgård’s cantata in homage to Hans Christian Andersen.
Will-o’-the Wisps in Town is one of 10 commissions to Danish composers for music to celebrate the 200th anniversary og Hnas Christian Andersen’s birth in 2005.
Nørgård hit upon a tell even richer in potential allegorical readings than the better-known ones he spurned. In the prophecy of the Marsh Witch, 12 will-o’er-the-wisps will go to town and wreak havoc with the moral fabric of society. Promted by the composer, Suzanne Brøgger wrote an imaginative continuation, in which the will-o’-the-wisps are let loose in the modern world but, on encountering extreme degrees of depravity, give up their mission as a bad job.
All this and more is simply but eloquently laid but not only in the music – a slimmed-down version of the cantata first heard in Birmingham – But also in the CD booklet essays and on the accompanying documentary DVD. There is surely something of a paradox here, however. The music’s engaging idiom (easing the ear towards the present day via shades of neo-romanticism, Britten, Stravinsky and Adams) and the clear narrative on the whole suggest a youngish target audience, as does the presence in the documentary of two enthusiastic interviewers, who elicit clear, uncondescending responses from composer and librettist. Yet most of the listeners seen in accompanying extracts from the performance seem to be late-middle-aged. Whether the cantata falls between two stools or has a multilayered breadth of appeal, I’m honestly not sure. But I can certainly report that its appeal grows with repetition and, as a bold statement by one of today’s leading composers, it clearly earns its place on the specialist collector’s shelve.
Out of the Craddle Endlessly Rocking (the title comes from Walt Whitman) is a filler but a substantial one, not so much for its 15-minute duration as for the rich suggestiveness of its writing. The ensemble is the same as Messiaen’s for his Quartet for the End of Time and the recurrence of Nørgård’s obsession with the cosmos and infinity shows a degree of conceptual – though hardly ever stylistic – overlap. Here I do get the impression of a stream of musical imagination emerging at full pressure, which still eludes me in parts of the Andersen cantata. Superb performance and recording, as usual from Dacapo.