Rued Langgaard: String Quartets Vol. 2
14 May 2014
Gary HigginsonIt’s a great relief
that Bendt Viinholt Nielsen’s helpful and detailed liner-notes clearly list the dates, keys and numberings of Langgaard’s quartets which are quite mixed and complicated. The reason for this is that some are not numbered, and No. 1 was rejected but parts were re-used as happened a little in other works. This is the middle disc of a set that aims to record all nine works for the medium although the DaCapo list has ten. Sadly and annoyingly I completely missed Volume 1, which was so well reviewed and contained Quartets 2, 3, 6 and the ‘O Sacred Head’ variations.
The grouping here binds around the title ‘The Rosengård Quartets’. As a twenty-year-old innocent the young Rued holidayed in Kyrkhult, a little Spa town, here he met his first and passionate love, a certain Dora. This experience sparked at least six works including these quartets. The opening work is entitled Rose Garden Play (Rosengaardsspil). The period between 1914 and 1925 not only saw the creation of most of the quartets but of many other fine works such as the masterly Sixth Symphony.
Back in the mid-1990s I bought a double album of Langgaard’s quartets (DaCapo DCCD9302) and it’s interesting that of the six pieces on their discs the Kontra Quartet did not record the listed No. 1. This was probably because the material was re-used in the Fourth Quartet, subtitled Summer Days (Sommerdage). It’s also interesting that with each movement they are so much faster and less relaxed but sunnier. I’d never thought much about this before but on hearing the four young women of the Nightingale Quartet I now think that this new version has more character and virtue especially in the slow music of movement three. That said, it’s worth adding, and the Kontra’s clearly noted the fact, that Langgaard writes ‘Scherzoso’ for each of the movements. Perhaps however the composer wanted to communicate a sense of lightness and not jokiness. Anyway both versions surely pass the test. This is a late–romantic work although never sickly or too inward-looking.
The unnumbered quartet entitled Rose Garden Play was effectively Langgaard’s fourth. Its first movement is identical to that of the above, real Fourth Quartet and its finale is just a shorter version of the more developed finale of the Fourth. The middle movements consist of a delightful Scherzoso, which is subtitled Mozart, obviously neo-classical, and then a deeply felt Tranquillo dolente third movement given the title ‘Drop fall’ presumably because of its constantly falling theme. One can’t help but hear, in both of these works, various hymnal textures; Langgaard was originally famed as an organist and an improviser. Ironically and curiously it was only when he was 47 that he secured an organist position and that in the ancient but small town of Ribe with its superb cathedral.
Stylistically Langgaard can be hard to pin down and this might be the main problem as to why he was so rarely played. We like our composers to be generally consistent so that we can pigeonhole them. Some of you might know some of Langgaard’s experimental late symphonies.
Perhaps though, Langgaard failed to number his 1918 A flat Quartet, effectively his fifth in the medium, because he felt, in its neo-classical manner, that it lacked a strong individual character. It could almost have been written a hundred years previous. In the first two movements especially, Schubert or Beethoven are a strong presence. The second movement Scherzando is pleasing but no more than that. The third movement – Lento dolente - is a C minor funeral march but this, starting pizzicato has many beautiful and reflective passages, and seem to be more Langgaard than anyone else. The fourth movement begins as an earnest Allegro agitato but the quite lengthy ensuing tranquillo moves into a more Twentieth Century melancholia that is very touching.
Plenty to enjoy on this disc, not least the ideally sympathetic performances. There is also much that is frustrating and the occasionally excessive sentimental nostalgia can outstay its welcome. In some movements there is a lack of what one has come to discover in other works as the composer’s true originality. Even so I shall look out for the third volume. If it’s played and recorded as superbly as this then one need not worry that the financial outlay will deliver musical value.