Nørgård’s Complete Symphonies

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NØRGÅRD: Symphonies Nos. 3* & 7 / *Ulla Muinch, alto; *Danish National Vocal Ens., Concert Choir & Symphony Orch.; Thomas Dausgaard, cond / Symphonies Nos. 1 & 8 / Vienna Philharmonic Orch.; Sakari Oramo, cond / Symphonies Nos. 2, 4-6 / Oslo Philharmonic Orch.; John Storgårds, cond / Dacapo 8204002

Considering that Per Nørgård is one of Denmark’s more famous and popular living composers, I find it odd that Dacapo, a Danish label, couldn’t have contracted one conductor and orchestra to present his eight symphonies in a single set, whether he be Dausgaard, who now works primarily with the Seattle Symphony, Oramo, Storgårds, or even Leif Segerstam, whose recordings of Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 I already have in my collection, but here we are with what the British like to call a “potted” set using three different orchestras and conductors.

Nørgård, now 90 years old, has been writing music since the early 1950s, amassing a catalogue of more than 400 works. Wikipedia places him in the Sibelius-Nielsen camp, but Holmboe’s first symphony is more advanced than either of those composers. Although it is primarily lyrical and does contain “repeatedly evolving melodies” in the style of Sibelius, his music is driven by stark modern harmonies which, though never atonal, are clearly beyond the grasp of the average concertgoers who love their Brahms and Sibelius. Echoes of Bartók, Hindemith and of course his teacher Vagn Holmboe, run through this piece; he often uses rising chromatic harmonies known as the “infinity series” in his music. Even from this first symphony in 1953-55, his music was volatile, churning, and often unpredictable in the manner in which it moves forward. It was clearly no whim that led him to dub this work the “Sinfonia austera,” for austere it most certainly is, with powerful, muscular orchestration. In some respects—aside from the much more advanced harmony—this symphony clearly has some features in common with Mahler.

Symphony No. 2, in one movement, was written 15 years later, in 1970. It begins very softly—so softly, in fact, that even with the volume turned 3/4 of the way up I couldn’t hear the opening, so I had to increase the volume. This was a mistake on the part of the recording engineer; what probably sounds eerie and ambient in the concert hall was inaudible on records. Nørgård’s style had clearly changed in those 15 years; this music has neither a definable tonality nor rhythm, although there is clearly some rhythm somewhere in this music. But it’s also clearly not the kind of mooshy, comfy-sounding ambient music we hear nowadays; its harmonies are much closer and even edgier than before. It sounds related to the music of György Ligeti. Yet there is clearly development going on, mostly by the winds (clarinets and oboes) against the soft string tremolos. At around the six-minute mark, there are some contrapuntal figures playing against the slower top line of the music. The way that Nørgård has fashioned his orchestration creates a strange sound, the kind we now hear from such modern composers as Kalevi Aho or Poul Ruders. At the 9:50 mark, fairly complex percussion figures also come into the picture, then recede as the volume decreases and further development begins. Oddly, much later in this one-movement work, at the 16-minute mark, one actually hears a somewhat melodic figure as the orchestra gets louder and the internal counterpoint busier, and as we pass the 20-minute mark, the harmony suddenly coalesces into tonality. A strange but oddly attractive work considering its form. It ends as it began, quietly, just fading off into nothingness.

The Third Symphony, written in 1972-75, opens with a contrabass C banged out on a piano, followed by soft, held notes in the lower strings; there are cymbal washes, freaky high piccolo figures, and slow, grumbling figures played by the contrabasses. Now we’re in a sound world that’s even beyond what Ligeti aid and Aho does today; the piano interacts with the strings to create a falling arpeggio that seems to be in a modal harmony, with other high strings playing slithering, screaming figures up above. After more soft screaming from the high violins, chimes enter the picture, then the music becomes faster and busier. Now we’re very much enmeshed in Nørgård’s “infinity series” chording, yet despite all this free tonality and occasional atonality, he introduces a legato section played broadly by the strings. It’s almost as if his mind was working in two different modes and styles simultaneously.  What impressed me was the fact that, although the second and third symphonies were written only a few years apart, Nørgård uses different styles. albeit with similar features, thus he is one of those rare composers who has more than one “voice.” The third symphony is somewhat more advanced in the sort of devices he used and the way he used them, but it still sounds very different from its predecessor (for one thing, it’s in two movements instead of one; for another, he used an organ here for color rather than a piano).

The second movement, surprisingly, has a set rhythm, a jaunty 4with a 3 figure (two eighth notes followed by a quarter) sometimes played across it. Yet, of course, both the rhythm and the bitonal theme (occasionally lyrical) become more complex as things progress. Nørgård also uses a wordless alto voice in the background, for ambience, not in loud but in soft passages…yet another surprising change in texture for him. Another surprise is the entrance of two choirs of voices later on. The music then becomes not only faster but highly rhythmic, using the words of Ave Maris Stella and a poem by Rückert, Sing, My Heart, of Unknown Gardens Poured in Glass. The movement runs so long (almost 26 minutes) that they manage to get the entire poem in. This is a really weird trip! Yet this symphony has become so successful in the concert hall that Nørgård has dedicated it to conductor Thomas Dausgaard, who directs the performance here.

But if you think this was weird, wait until you hear his Fourth Symphony (1981). Although the symphony as a whole has no title, the first movement represents an “Indian Rose Garden” and the second a “Chinese Witch’s Lake,” which means that here Nørgård fused his by-now-usual non-tonal style with some more exotic harmonies…not quite Indian or Chinese, but suggestive of them. In certain moments, he also uses the string basses to play low droning sounds that resemble a didgeridoo. Here, the free tonality is even more pronounced, yet despite the very abstract sound of this music, there is some quite logical development going on in it. At around the 10:35 mark in the first movement, he also uses some microtonality, just for fun. And surprisingly, the “Chinese Witch’s Lake” follows without a break, suddenly jumping up in volume with a fast, pounding theme underscored by some heavy percussion. After a long, slow decrescendo, this symphony also ends in the middle of nowhere.

The Fifth Symphony, initially composed between 1987 and 1990 but revised in 1991, is in five movements. Here, Nørgård takes one more step forward; now, his music is much more abstract than before, yet his musical instincts are so good that he still manages to pull his strange themes, some of which are microtonal, together to create a coherent if somewhat bizarre structure. The music slithers about, enveloping the listener in Nørgård’s strange web of sound (as opposed to a wall of sound). The interconnected movements continue to move his ideas forward, and since they are all atonal, just listening to the symphony complete runs them together in the listener’s mind and ear, which was probably his intention. At times, he somehow gets the orchestra to simulate the sound of broken glass; in the second movement, he also scores the trumpets, with mutes, to sound “drunk.”

Symphony No. 6 (1999) is subtitled “At the End of the Day,” 3 Passages for Large Orchestra. This one opens in an almost cheerful mood, with high, chirping piccolo and flute figures over very close atonal harmonies. Harp and winds come swooping in to create a swirling mélange of sound, aided and abetted by horns and winds, then the basses and cellos. We then move onto trumpets playing in their middle and low ranges, then the cellos; the wind figures now come swooping down from up top as the orchestra slowly builds upwards in sound until we finally get the violins, oboes, horns and clarinets. The volume drops off as the tympani plays a decrescendo and the trumpets, trombones and middle strings play microtonal figures. Nørgård is nothing if not unpredictable! Playful rhythms come and go, but the music is only moderately chipper on the surface. Underneath, it sounds as if the orchestra is trying to split up into chaos, though this never quite occurs. The piccolos and flutes still keep on trying to jolly things up, and eventually the lower instruments start to sound a bit jolly as well, but in a galumphing manner. A piano tosses in some atonal figures. Once again, a strange piece in a very different style although recognizably the same composer. Apparently, Nørgård’s mind explodes at the ends of days !

In the second movement, low trombones combine with the basses for the opening statement (not even really a theme), underscored by percussion (but not the tympani). Here, the music sounds menacing but sort of glides along in whole notes for the most part with occasional little figures played by solo instruments (oboe, bassoon, viola). You might call this movement a collection of musical gestures that the composer has tossed together. This is the only movement so far that I didn’t much like, as I felt it was just a string of effects without cause or direction. The third movement, which follows the second without pause, is much of the same but in a faster tempo.

In Symphony No. 7 (2004-06, of which this is the first recording), Nørgård opens with a sonic explosion that quickly splits into little shards playing against one another in counterpoint. This movement also features 14 tuned tom-toms playing against one another. Eventually, the counterpoint becomes extremely complex in rhythm, in fact it sounds like three different rhythms played against one another, and then a real surprise—a sort of swinging syncopation that resembles jazz (something one did not hear in the previous six symphonies). Indeed, this entire first movement is a study in constantly shifting and counteracting rhythms. The slow second movement, surprisingly, opens with a lyrical theme statement by the clarinet, then the oboe, but is followed by a loud crushed chord played by brass and strings before the music moves on to strange little gestures that never quite coalesce into a theme. The third movement opens with a wacky theme in a syncopated 3 that sounds nothing like a waltz; again, strong contrapuntal figures dominate the proceedings. But this sort of thing goes on too long and doesn’t say very much. My feeling is that, in his old age, Nørgård has gotten not stodgy but wholly intellectual in his approach. His music surprises, but doesn’t really communicate a lot. One surprise is that, like some of his previous movements, the symphony ends abruptly.

Much to my surprise, the Eighth Symphony (2010-11, of which this is also the first recording) is not only more playful but also more cohesive. This is delightful music, in its strange atonal way, that harks back to some of his earlier works. Yes, it ruminates a bit too long, but it does develop and it is interesting. Lots of syncopation in the first movement, along with a cute piano solo playing circular chromatic figures. Later on, after the winds have some syncopated fun, the harp plays the circular chromatic figures along with what sounds like a celesta. The second movement is lyrical in Nørgård’s own quirky way, again with the celesta in the background. The sounds of some percussion that sounds like maracas heralds the last movement, “Più mosso – Lento visionario,” with its swirling wind figures that rise up into infinity.

Nørgård is quoted in the booklet as saying that “The music I would have liked to hear wasn’t there,” which is why he became a composer. Well, now it exists, and although there are some weak moments here and there, for the most part his symphonic journey has been successful. My sole caveat about this set, as I normally have of sets of symphonies or concerti by one composer, is that the works are not presented in order but all jumbled up on these CDs. In Nørgård’s case this is particularly unfortunate; one really needs to hear these works in chronological sequence in order to appreciate not only his growth as a composer, but also his growing sophistication, the new harmonic forms and orchestration he used, and other, subtler things that one hears in these works, yet the fact that these eight symphonies fit very easily in their correct sequence on the four CDs doesn’t seem ti have bothered Dacapo. Since this is the way these CDs came out as individual discs, they just took the lazy route and repackaged them in this goofball order: 3 & 7, 1 & 8, 6 & 2, and 5 & 4. (They didn’t even have the integrity to sequence 5 and 4 and 4 and 5.) In my opinion, this is inexcusable laziness on their part, and their refusal to sequence them properly will drive you crazy. They do NOT sound better when heard out of order; on the contrary, they sound somehow wrong this way.

Other than that, this is a great set of performances. I even like Dausgaard’s performance of No. 3 and Storgård’s of No. 4 better than the recording of both symphonies that Leif Segerstam made for Chandos several years ago. Thus I recommend it, but be forewarned about the sequencing.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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