Symphonies 2 & 6
Symphonies 2 & 6
“These are magnificent performances” Gramophone
★★★★★ Fono Forum ★★★★★ BBC Music Magazine ★★★★ The Guardian
“I feel each of my symphonies is a whole continent in itself,” the Danish composer Per Nørgård (b. 1932) has said. His music stems from an insatiable urge to explore the phe no mena of the world and the possibilities of music, and his eight symphonies stand as milestones along the course of six decades. This recording with the Oslo Philharmonic conducted by John Storgårds presents Per Nørgård’s Second Symphony, in which the composer unfolds his famous ‘infinity principle’ euphorically and almost psychedelically, and his Sixth Symphony, in which the mature composer proves more exploratory and playful than ever.
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Storgårds and Nørgård
by John Storgårds
The first time I came into contact with Per Nørgård’s music must have been in connection with the Nordic Music Days festival, back in the 1980s, while I was performing in many of those festivals as a violinist. Back then, I didn’t perform any music of his, but I heard various things, for example choral pieces, that somehow grabbed me. I also studied a bit of composing in those days, which of course made me a concentrated listener and a searcher for inspiration.
Later on, also in connection with one of those same festivals, I learned one of his pieces properly as a still fairly inexperienced conductor. I was asked to conduct Constellations for 12 solo strings with the Finnish Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, for which I was concertmaster in those days. I realized then that I was dealing with a quite fascinating, unique and demanding composer.
The definitive point when Per Nørgård became really important to me was during the Avanti! Orchestra’s 14th Summer Sound Festival in 1999 in Borgå, Finland. The conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste was the artistic director of this festival. I was personally involved in organizing Per Nørgård’s period as ‘composer in residence’ for that year’s festival and was accordingly involved with numerous performances of his music, both as a violinist and conductor. I will never forget the intense late night rehearsal sessions as leader of the Avanti! String Quartet, in a sports hall with Per Nørgård himself present, so inspirationally supervising our work on his 7th and 8th string quartets. The main piece by him which I conducted at the same festival was his wonderfully tricky and exciting Piano Concerto In due tempi with Per Salo as soloist.
I had now become a big fan of Per Nørgård and we also became friends. Having been in touch with his music regularly ever since, I just happened to call him exactly at the right time some years ago. I wanted to ask him to compose an orchestral work for a world premiere with the Helsinki Philharmonic with myself as chief conductor. This led to a visit to his lovely home in Copenhagen and to the commissioning of his 8th Symphony. What a masterpiece it is! As a dedicatee of the work and having had the privilege of conducting its world premiere in Helsinki with the composer present, this will forever remain one of the main highlights in my life as a musician. The private readings of the symphony with Nørgård alone – first of his own manuscript at his piano and later of the full score just before the final editing and the world premiere – were equally great, unique and very special moments between just him and me.
And now, recording his Symphonies Nos. 2, 4, 5 and 6 with the great Oslo Philharmonic and the brilliant producer Preben Iwan has been like a continuation of a beautiful dream for me. The recordings in May and June 2015 of these four symphonies were simply excellent sessions, with fully committed, focused and wonderful people. In addition, knowing his 7th Symphony very well (I conducted its British premiere at the BBC Proms) and the 1st and 3rd symphonies as a listener and score reader, I can say without any doubt that for me, Nørgård is the greatest symphonist of our time. All his symphonies are individual, concentrated masterpieces. Every single one has its totally distinctive, crystal-clear logic, differing from the others in a way that only Sibelius’ symphonies, before Nørgård’s, do. There are also other similarities to discover. More about that another time.
John Storgårds, 2016
A Delta of other worlds
by Jens Cornelius
Per Nørgård’s works stem from an insatiable urge to explore the phenomena of the world and the possibilities of music. His list of works is huge – over 400 of them – and the eight symphonies stand as pillars of his production. They are milestones along the course of 60 years, and the range from the gloomy Nordic Symphony No. 1 to the ethereal Symphony No. 8 is simply vast. Perhaps only Nørgård’s Nordic predecessor Sibelius has to the same extent composed symphonies of such great variety.
Nørgård has indeed always had a close relationship with Sibelius, but it is by no means imitation of his music that constitutes the influence. “What I think has been the most profound lesson from studying Sibelius’ symphonies is the extent to which each of the works is really in a class by itself. This permeates my own attitude to composing symphonies. I feel each of my symphonies is a whole continent in itself,” Nørgård said when his Sixth Symphony was given its first performance in 2000.
Symphony No. 6/ At the End of the Day
It was with a roguish smile that Per Nørgård presented the title of his new Sixth Symphony At the End of Day or, in Danish, Når alt kommer til alt at a press conference in 1999. Nørgård was then 67 years old, and men of his age retire. Had he written his last symphony, a summation of a lifelong immersion in the genre?
The symphony had been commissioned by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and the Oslo Philharmonic to celebrate the Millennium, and the first performance six days into the year 2000 was to prove one of the self-renewals with which Nørgård has so often surprised us. For it is quite certain that no doors were closed in this symphony. On the contrary Nørgård is more exploratory, more playful and rhythmically ebullient than in any of his previous symphonies. For despite the two titles of the symphony (teasingly not-quite-synonymous as they are) the point is that the end never comes. Each closure is followed by a new beginning. Nørgård in fact underscored this quite specifically by following up with both a Symphony No. 7 and No. 8.
Symphony No. 6 is also one of Nørgård’s most classical symphonies, divided into three movements: a large, dynamic first movement, a slow second movement and a short, lively final movement. Despite the pauses between the movements the music develops in one long, fluid process, and Nørgård therefore prefers to call the movements in his Sixth Symphony “passages” and compares the pauses to bridges over an onward-flowing stream.
The first four minutes of the symphony form a restless statement recalling the exposition of a classical first movement. But the exposition ends at a standstill. After rumbling drum sounds the music dies out. After which the first of the symphony’s new beginnings immediately takes over! The restart develops with tremendous imagination into a game with the orchestral possibilities. The exuberance comes close to ending in anarchy, and then the orchestra drops into a gorge of dark timbres, produced by hordes of low-sounding, unusual instruments such as the double bass trombone, double bass tuba and double bass clarinet.
The dark, unreal sounds become the point of departure for the second passage, which starts with a very slow pulse. The bass chords function as a passacaglia, a foundation for a development over it which increases in tempo and in the number of layers. The flow moves the music onward in the mischievous third passage, where jerky riffs and the rolling, descending lines from the beginning of the symphony frolic with the listener. A humorous game with the infinite, until that development too sinks into the depths. Was that – at the end of the day – the ending? No – for at a quite unexpected point a narrow chink is opened up to new horizons. “A delta of other worlds,” Per Nørgård calls it. From here new journeys begin. A thousand new years wait ahead.
The symphony is dedicated to Nørgård’s wife, Helle Rahbæk Nørgård. After another performance in 2000 Nørgård revised the score along with the conductor Thomas Dausgaard, but by then he had already embarked on the pursuit of the “other worlds” that Symphony No. 6 had presented for him. The symphony quickly acquired a sister piece, a mirror-image in the form of the large orchestral piece Terrains vagues. It begins where Symphony No. 6 ends. But that, as usual with Per Nørgård, is quite another story.
Symphony No. 2 - In One Movement
In the 1960s Nørgård had discovered the principle he called the Infinity Series; a sequence which, translated into notes, combines modernist rigour with natural metamorphosis. The endless generation by the infinity series of new intervals emerges, among other ways, from the formation of the inversion of the series itself and of fractals. The intervals of the series can be found in other proportions such as every fourth note, every sixteenth note, every sixty-fourth note etc., and thus it develops so it can exist on several planes at the same time.
For Nørgård this was a revelation, and his quite personal path out of the experiments of the 1960s with the serial techniques that had a stifling effect on him. Instead the infinity series threw all the doors open wide. Its breakthrough was Voyage into the Golden Screen for chamber orchestra. The year was 1968, the hippie era was changing the world, and Nørgård too. He fetched the title of the work from a song by the singer/songwriter Donovan.
Voyage into the Golden Screen unfolded the infinity series in “a full round” of 1,024 notes. The result was so fruitful that Nørgård immediately resolved to write a whole symphony on the same principle. Symphony No. 2 – in one movement became the title, and it is a tribute to the power – both rule-governed and natural – of the infinity series.
“Instead of about 1000 notes of the series, I wanted to use about 4000 notes to exploit the potential for further immersion in the many layers and interval combinations of the infinity series. Instead of the ‘untouched unfolding’ of the tonal sequence and its orchestration I now wanted to ‘intervene’: to create melodies, take it to climaxes, to enlighten etc., but all with respect for the continuing flow and preservation of the special, timeless objectivity characteristic of the infinity series,” Per Nørgård explained.
The main course of the symphony is the first 4096 notes of the infinity series, which run as a constant strand in more or less uninterrupted quavers. The long one-movement sequence is composed of phases, specifically 16 phases each with 256 notes of the series. After each phase of the development Nørgård places a bell signal. A ‘round’ is completed and we have risen one level. After every fourth phase Nørgård marks the progress of the music with what he calls a ‘screen’ of brass fanfares. Great, deafening orgastic eruptions. They too are part of an order such that screens Nos. 1 and 3 and screens Nos. 2 and 4 are related pairs.
The symphony begins with a ‘birth’ of the infinity series. It develops gradually, first as pitchless air sounds, then unison sounds and after that quarter-tone intervals. The chromatic intervals are approaching. And the peal of a bell marks the starting shot for the unfolding of the infinity series. The music takes off, euphorically, almost psychedelically, as if it has been given wings.
For most of the symphony the quavers are played by the flutes, while the slower layers are usually pitched lower in the orchestra. Because the various layers of the music have the same origin, this gives the symphony a sense of totality that recalls ambient music. The non-stop rhythmic flow is also, one could say, related to the American minimalism of the time, although the rhythmic pulse in Nørgård’s Second Symphony has a different ‘swing’. But there are even lines back to musical precursors, for the growth of the symphony makes it a radical extension of the metamorphosis idea of Nørgård’s teacher, Vagn Holmboe, and their shared model, Sibelius. Nørgård’s Second Symphony and Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony are both demonstratively one-movement symphonies and originate in a scale presentation (C major for Sibelius and the infinity series for Nørgård!). And the trombone theme which marks the key points in Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony acquires a distant cousin in the form of Nørgård’s overwhelming brass ‘screens’.
A few years before Symphony No. 2 and Voyage into the Golden Screen Nørgård had even made a geographical break with conservatism by terminating his tenure at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. Instead he relocated with his best pupils to Jutland, to the Royal Academy in Aarhus, and in 1970 the Aarhus City Orchestra gave the symphony its first performance, conducted by Per Dreier.
At that time the world-famous Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache was a frequent visitor to the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in Copenhagen, and he had become very enthusiastic about Voyage into the Golden Screen. Nørgård played the radio recording of the new Second Symphony for him, and Celibidache stated that he had never heard such beautiful music in his life. An international success for the symphony, which Nørgård revised for the occasion, was in the offing. But Celibidache’s temperament got in the way; first when he demanded a whole 20 hours of orchestral rehearsals for the symphony, and then on a quite different occasion when he walked out on the orchestra in a rage. Celibidache never came to conduct a single Per Nørgård work, but by then the symphony had already been dedicated to him – and it still is.
© Jens Cornelius, 2016