More Langgaard: “Music of the Spheres”

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LANGGAARD: Music of the Spheres. Endens Tid (The End of Time). From the Abyss / Inger Dam Jensen, sop; Hetna Regitze Bruun, mezzo; Peter Lodahl, ten; Johan Reuter, bar; Danish National Symphony Orch. & Chorus; Thomas Dausgaard, cond / Dacapo 6.220535

Here we go again with more of Rued Langaard’s strange-but-wonderful music, and once again we need to quote the late Bette Davis: “It’s going to be a bumpy ride!”

As Jørgen Jensen wrote in the liner notes for the Ole Schmidt recording of Music of the Spheres:

Langgaard chose the following lines written by the Danish priest Monrad: “The stars may seem to twinkle kindly, but their message is cold and merciless.” The title of the work is thus not indicative of an actual cosmic harmony, but is again concerned with duality; not merely the ubiquitous cosmic conflict but also the hostility and yet strange attraction of the heavens. It was composed in 1918 when Langgaard was 25 years old, and was first performed in Karlsruhe. After a second performance in Berlin the next year, it drifted into obscurity and was not given again until I 968. It consists of a series of small episodes which individually and in combination seek to convey a sense of spaciousness which is quite unique. The soprano solo in “The Gospel of Flowers…” is a poem by Ida Lock.

And here is the translation of Ida Lock’s poem:

When I dive “my soul” into the depths
of pain and joy, at a glance
it seems to me that I heard the sound
of a distant, transfigured music
as if the air circle was holding again
tones full of pain and torment,
like an echo of sighs and lament
from the earthly wailing valley
like the fragrant sounding wave,
like the living sounding tide
from the land of song and joy
where the soul dreams and rests.

So here we go into Langgaard’s musical abyss!

This is indeed strange-sounding music; like his concept of the heavens, cold but somehow attractive, albeit with occasional ominous rumbles of tympani to indicate that there is something odd going on. The first section is in fact titled “Like sunbeams on a coffin decorated with sweet-smelling flowers,” followed by a few descriptive of images in nature before we reach Part VI, “Longing – Despair – Ecstasy.” There is nothing warm or Romantic in this score, which puts it at odds with the symphonies he was writing at this time. On the contrary, there is an eerie resemblance to the music of Ligeti, albeit with occasional tonal references which Ligeti would not have used. The tympani reach a crescendo of rhythmic terror in the midst of the third part, “Like light and the depths,” and even when Langgaard gives us a relatively lyrical theme played by the violins in “Longing – Despair – Ecstasy,” it is not sweet or inviting but somehow “off” a bit, adding to the feeling of edginess in the work. To say that this is a bizarre piece is like saying that Quasimodo wasn’t very good-looking. It gives us an environment of cold, forbidding and even dangerous sounds, many of them quiet but nonetheless menacing. Soprano and chorus pop up in part VIII, “I wish…,” which keeps accelerating in tempo as it becomes louder and louder until the orchestra (again aided by the tympani) overwhelm us in Part IX (“Chaos – Ruin – Far and Near”). Then, when things quiet down, we hear a lovely French horn solo set against the one truly Romantic section in the entire piece. The actual poem, however, is not sung until Part XIII, “The gospel of flowers – from the far distance.” Our soloist, soprano Inger Dam Jensen, has a pretty but overly-fluttery voice. Her diction is OK. In the last piece, “The end: Antichrist – Christ,” the chorus suddenly enters with a loud, long-held chord as the music crescendos and thunders its way through until, surprisingly, things quiet down and we get a peaceful, wordless chorus against a soft but cold backdrop. Then the last crescendo, with tymps, to the finish. Truly a wild ride!

Endens Tid (The End of Time) dates from 1939-40 and is an orchestral suite based on the Prelude and excerpts from his opera, Antikrist (which I’ve just previously reviewed). From the liner notes for the Chandos release:

when ragnarok – the end of the world – comes, he loses control of the situation and perishes in the vision of doom with “the Scarlet Woman,” his partner and opponent, who plays a central role in the opera but is given only two bars in The End of Time.

Our baritone soloist, Johan Reuter, is particularly excellent, with a rich, dark, well-focused voice and excellent diction and phrasing, and soprano Jensen actually sounds more in focus here than on the previous piece.

And then we come to yet another jolly piece, From the Abyss (Fra Dybet). Another strange and fascinating work, it comes from his last period, 1950-52. To quote annotator Bengt Viinholt Nielsen, the man who catalogued all of Langgaard’s works and gave them numbers,

The piece opens with a section of nightmarish, grotesque “war music,” which Langgaard had heard in a dream. [So even his dreams were weird!] Suddenly, the scene changes and an “organ from the deep” plays a hymn. Then eight soloists and subsequently a “choir from the deep” enter in singing “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine; et lux perpetua luceat eis (Lord, grant them eternal rest, and let perpetual light shin e upon them). After a climax, the work ends with an almost unaccompanied chorus singing a quotation from the Dies irae hymn: “Mihi quoque spem dedisti” (Give me hope as well).

This piece was never performed in public until after Leif Segerstam’s 1993 recording for Chandos, but Dausgaard’s recording is even quicker in tempo and more intense in feeling.

I would rate this an essential recording for admirers of the composer; the performances are intense and the sound quality mind-boggling, almost rivaling that of an SACD disc (which I wouldn’t have thought possible).

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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