Nørgård: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5 - Storgårds
Dacapo Records 6.220646
Classical - Orchestral
Per Nørgård: Symphony No. 4 (1981); Symphony No. 5 (1987-90, rev. 1991)
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
John Storgårds (conductor)
Per Nørgård’s music originates in an inextinguishable desire to explore the marvels of the world and the powers of music. His eight symphonies stand as milestones, composed through six decades, each with its own unique musical world. This recording by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor John Storgårds presents two of Nørgård’s most dramatic works; the chaotic and troubled Symphony No. 4 inspired by the schizophrenic Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli, and the fearless Symphony No. 5, in which the composer seems to embrace violent forces of nature.
Review by John Miller - October 30, 2016
Da Capo have now completed their splendid survey of Per Nørgård's eight Symphonies, making it the first complete cycle, and the only one to be recorded in high resolution with multichannel mode as well as stereo. The first issue in the DaCapo cycle was conducted by Dausgaad with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Choir (Feb 2009), but after there was a long gap until the cycle resumed with Symphonies 1 & 8 from Oramo and (surprisingly) the Vienna Philharmonic (June 2014). After that, the final pair of discs from Storgårds with the Oslo Philharmonic were issued, at a remarkable speed for such a massive and complex project.
There is little argument that the Danish composer Per Nørgård (1932-) is the most prominent Danish composer after Carl Nielsen. The sheer volume of Nørgård's music (over 400 pieces) shows his versatility, ranging through opera, symphonic, concerti, chamber, piano and choral. He is also a highly esteemed orchestrator, extracting music of magical colour and emotion from a wide range of instruments, often those which other composers rarely use. Beyond the music itself, he has a unique intellect which is constantly searching for new approaches and developing them. This led to a practical use of some mathematics to make a new kind of music, from a concept called "the infinity series" which is still quite unique (Nørgård denies that he is a Mathematician). This is a far more sophisticated than developed the twelve-tone technique of Schoenberg and disciples.
Why, on this particular disc, are the two Symphonies 4 & 5 not presented in chronical order? Although they are strongly related, I have not been able to find, in the otherwise excellent booklet, any explanation of why the Fifth comes before the Fourth. In fact, the Fourth marks a time Nørgård was preoccupied in searching for a new concept of Time, leading him to shatter the visions from Symphony 2 and Symphony 3. But then he was inspired by the art of Swiss poet Adolph Wölfli (1864-1930), whose paintings he first viewed in the Louisiana Museum of Art at Humblebæk, Denmark (1979). Wölfli was in a mental hospital for most of his life with a split personality, which caused suffering from psychosis, and led to intense hallucinations.
Wölfli's sometimes violent mental chaos was accompanied by an enormous production of art. Viewing Wölfli's thousands of texts, images and fragments of music as well as layer upon layer of art, all of which swarmed with details and perspectives, Nørgård could recognise pristine aspects of his own work. He began a new series of musical pieces, experimenting with these new views of his life and how he could devise new ways of expressing it musically, initiating a period of what he later referred to his "crisis years".
Symphony 4 (1981) necessarily moves away from his previous symphonies with their harmonic visions of a Cosmos. It has two movements, based on a title which Wölfli wrote but never composed. The titles in English are "Indian Rose Garden" and "Chinese Witch Lake", making a symphony which is nearly a programme work. Each movement has characters which oppose the other. Nørgård compared this to the Yin and Yang symbol "which has a black in the white 'fish' and a white eye in the black one".
In the Indian Rose Garden, the opening uses instruments which suggest Indian types, and then picks up on a Romantic solo violin, in a lonely atmosphere, the song "Sad is to be alone". Next, the music is based on the birdsong motif of a South African Robin, starting softly on the piccolo - "it contains the existential, paradox of joy and sorrow" Nørgård tells us. Transition to the wicked Chinese Witches is abrupt and startling, full of power and horror as their Lake is fiery and warlike with hectic rhythms. Interwoven are quotations from abroad, including "Fascination", an old waltz of Mantovani (very tongue in cheek!), ending by the brass crazily playing a Ländler from a cafe, another song of Wölfli completed by Nørgård. The orchestral emulation of flaming water over the lake reaches a huge crescendo, only to end on five soft intonations of the birdsong. This final sense of the Indian Rose Garden indicates the theorised interaction of Yin and Yang.
Symphony 5 (1987-90, rev. 1991) was first performed under the baton of Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka, who was also the dedicatee. It appears to be a form of fifth symphony which Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius also claimed as break-thorough after a period of artistic crisis. Nørgård's Fifth has been hailed as a "mighty work" by Jense Cornelius, the writer of notes in the DaCapo booklet; "Nørgård showed with supreme courage that he could look all the chaotic forces in the eye however violent they might be". Structually, Nørgård preferred to let listeners make their own ideas on the numbers of sections and where they might begin and end. Some might see the work as a continuous development of repeating chaos-calm, or as a symphonic structure, with four sections - dynamic first movement (aptly "Allegro robusto), a quick second movement (where the first few bars of "Jingle Bells" surfaces), a fast third movement and finally an unstoppable, wild rushing to its end.
The performance was recorded in the Rehearsal Room of the nearly new Oslo Opera House, somewhat smaller and more intimate than the Oslo Concert Hall, where greater power Symphony 5 was recorded. Preben Iwan, as DaCapo's top level producer and master of mixing, presents the different venue acoustics quite smoothly. As with the rest of the series originating in Oslo, the 88.kHz/24 bit recording with carefully set microphones is stunning in capturing Nørgård's fantastic orchestration. In the indispensable booklet, there is a photo of Storgårds and Nørgård discussing over a score. There is evidently much value for Storgårds and his players to have had such active advice. The Oslo Philharmonic, together with their conductor, obviously love the symphonies and were meticulous in their rendition of the formidably challenging mass of detail and unusual musical sounds which make up the two defiant symphonies, 4 and 5.
DaCapo are to be congratulated on their present full set of Nørgård's remarkable, enveloping, ever-developing symphonies. It is particularly valuable to have them in such high resolution with multichannel, the later format truly gripping a listener. There are other partial sets of Nørgård symphonies in ordinary CD by Leif Segerstam, for example, which are excellent but of course different. It takes a listener quite a lot of work with music of such depth and innovation, so it is hard to make choices until other performances become familiar as well. But at the time of writing, DaCapo's set is in high resolution, superbly recorded and documented and has had advice from the composer. What more could you want?
Here are the other discs which had been released at the time of writing:
Nørgård: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 8 - Oramo
Nørgård: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 7 - Dausgaard
Nørgård: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5 - Storgårds
Want to understand more about Nørgård's "Infinity Series" and fractals, with illustrations?
An illuminating interview with Nørgård
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