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:P H O T O G R A P H Y

Per Nørgård Richard Whitehouse champions Denmark’s greatest living symphonist in his 80th year

Whilst not exactly a best-kept secret, the music of Per Nørgård has not made the headway one might have expected given its positive take on most of the compositional conundrums in Western music over the greater part of last century. Within the Nordic countries, the situation is very different: in his native Denmark, Nørgård is widely considered the most important composer after Nielsen, while the world premiere of his Eighth Symphony at Helsinki in September has been followed by performances in Stockholm and Copenhagen. Isolated hearings apart, Nørgård’s music has only gradually made its way in the UK, yet both the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies have been given at the Proms, while the Eighth is to be heard in London next spring as part of a BBC Total Immersion weekend centred on his music. Much of this has now been commercially recorded – with both Chandos and, more recently, Dacapo having set down most of his larger orchestral works under the authoritative direction of Leif Segerstam and Thomas Dausgaard.

The eight symphonies are an ideal way into a voluminous output (422 published works at the time of writing) that takes in all the major genres from grand opera to solo instrumental and unaccompanied vocal music. The fruits of Nørgård’s intensive study with Vagn Holmboe are evident in the First Symphony (1955), whose subtitle Sinfonia austera denotes the music’s serious and

‘Nørgård ’s Fifth Symphony is arguably the most significant reappraisal of symphonic form in the past half-century’

even severe nature. The role of Holmboe’s ‘metamorphosis’ technique – as the means of generating long-term formal continuity – is undeniable, but so is the influence of Sibelius (as those familiar with Tapiola will doubtless attest), reflecting Nørgård’s empathy for a composer whose symphonic thinking was at that time rarely to be considered ‘radical’.

The journey to the Second Symphony (1970) is in part Nørgård’s development of the ‘infinity series’ as a way of creating layers of melodies that move simultaneously at different speeds across the texture. Having made it the basis of a whole work, Nørgård then elaborated it in his Third Symphony (1975) whose first movement opens out the series into a varied evolution of heightened expressive contrasts, while the second pursues an unpredictable progress in which Rilke’s poem Singe die Gärten is encountered as the ecstatic culmination of a truly utopian worldview.

That worldview was blown apart by Nørgård’s life-changing encounter with the life and work (such as they are divisible) of Swiss schizophrenic artist Adolf Wölfli, whose thinking underlies the fraught dualism of the Fourth Symphony (1981): its intermingling of idyll and catastrophe encapsulated in the subtitle Indian Rose Garden and Chinese Witch Lake. This period of soul-searching reached its climax with the Fifth Symphony (1990) – a compendium

Per Nørgård deserves much more recognition outside his native Denmark of Nørgård’s thinking up to that time as well as, arguably, the most significant reappraisal of symphonic form in the past half-century; its nominal four movements being drawn into a complex and often violent evolution whose guiding tenet is that of the ‘velocity of life’.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that each of Nørgård’s subsequent symphonies should find its way to a more ‘classical’ notion of the genre. The Sixth Symphony (1999), subtitled At the End of the Day, consists of three ‘passages’ where a process of false endings and new beginnings underlines a sense that nothing can ever be completed – the whole clothed in some of the composer’s most translucent orchestration. The Seventh Symphony (2006) refines this thinking, its three movements outlining a play on archetypal forms as arresting as it is playful, then the Eighth Symphony (2011) adopts a similar format but with greater lightness of touch and a luminosity of texture in music which invokes the transcendence of late Sibelius.

All apart from this last symphony (due from Sakari Oramo and the Vienna Philharmonic in the coming year) are available on disc, and prospective listeners should head to the coupling of the Third and Seventh Symphonies, in which Dausgaard conducts the Danish National Symphony Orchestra (see below). The former was recorded following intensive rehearsals and performances, at the end of which Nørgård was moved to dedicate the work to those participating.

Hopefully such pieces will begin to find their way into the programmes of British orchestras and conductors – thereby bearing out the observation (some four decades ago) of Sergiu Celibidache who considered the Second Symphony to represent the music of the future, yet which would necessitate a new millennium for this importance to be recognised.

the essential recording

Symphonies – Nos 3, ‘Twilight’, and 7 Danish National Choir, Vocal Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard Dacapo F Í 6 220547


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