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PROMS 2002

PROM 15: Nørgård, Nielsen, Brahms, Nikolaj Znaider (Vln),
Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR, Thomas Dausgaard, RAH, 30th July 2002 (AR)


Nørgård’s Sixth Symphony, ‘At the End of the Day’, whilst divided into three movements - Moderato, Lentissimo, and Allegro energico - cannot really be defined as having a beginning, middle and end. The work is more a mosaic of floating fragments. Nørgård's shimmering score deconstructs our commonsense understanding of time as a linear narrative. As the composer states in the programme notes: "This symphony appears to end only a few minutes into the first passage, as the music fades away to almost-silence, after a start of flying colours." Nørgård expects his orchestra to master a whole panoply of otherworldly‚ sounds as is made clear from the opening cascade of squeaky-chirruping notes from the string section, cross-fading to a menacing pulse-beat from muffled percussion.

Nørgård describes the sound world of his Sixth Symphony as a "bass-world", because it incorporates instruments he has never used before: double-bass tuba, double-bass trombone, double-bass clarinet, and bass flute. This bass-world produced a subterranean sound-scape, as if the music came from deep within the earth. These sounds directly assault the nervous system, evoking a whole cascade of alien animal noises, as well as a post-modern industrial clangour very much akin to the music of Edgar Varese. The strings were required to make sharp, spiky, sliding slivers of sound. The Danish National Symphony Orchestra produced these novel nerve-nailing sounds with meticulous precision. The work was warmly received, as was the 70 year-old composer who joined the Conductor on the platform, but as the applause died away one lone Promenader was heard shouting ‘Crap! Where are the tunes? There are no tunes!"

The next work was last played at the Proms in 1952. Fifty years later, the imposing hunk
Nikolaj Znaider wielded his Stradivarius to great and stylish effect; his rendition of the Nielsen Violin Concerto was an exemplary performance. Znaider wisely eschewed histrionics in this most symphonically constructed of concerti, allowing the violin to speak with subtle restraint. This was especially noticeable in the exchanges between violin and the pointedly dissonant woodwind in several passages.

Znaider held the audience spellbound: never have I heard the Promenaders so silent; there was a sense that this was a very special performance. This was particularly so in the intense poignancy of his rendition of the all too brief slow movement, then changing mood swiftly to one of humour and vitality in the final movement. This was the finest account I have heard of this work, and it was therefore a great pity that the hall was half empty.

Unfortunately the Brahms 1st Symphony was a bit of an anticlimax. This was a pedestrian interpretation badly prepared, with a couple of serious glitches in the brass department. However, this was compensated somewhat by the string section which had a swagger and weight so lacking in our London symphony orchestras. A rather dull performance. Dausgaard is obviously more suited to the cool Scandinavian repertoire rather than the Germanic romantic tradition.

It was left to Neilsen to end the night on a high note with his Overture to Masquerade by way of an encore, delivered with exuberant panache by an orchestra and conductor who were thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Alex Russell

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