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Siddharta/ For a Change

Danish National Radio Choir & Symphony Orchestra/Latham-Koenig
with soloists & Gert Mortensen (percussion)
Marco Polo dacapo 8.224031-32 [136 min]

The operas of Per Norgard are never straightforward (see S&H's report about the most recent Nuit des Hommes July 2000). Siddharta (1979) is a full-length opera-ballet about the protected youth of a prince, a prodigy child who was to be cocooned in bliss, unaware of sickness, old age and death. The necessary deceptions are finally uncovered, and in the final Act, Siddharta departs toseek 'other planets' and belatedly begin to learn the true lessons of life, eventually (not in Norgard's opera) becoming Buddha.

Norgard develops his harmonic language with immense subtlety, so that the listener becomes aware that 'what is happening on stage does not fit; that which seems harmonious is profoundly discordant' (Jorgen Jensen). Norgard himself, in one of the six (!) introductory essays, discusses how his infinity series is employed, also the Golden Section in forming rhythmical proportions, and how Siddharta finally walks into an unknown future, where he is met by unfamiliar 'delicate, soft motifs, rhythms and tones'. This last act is the easiest to grasp, to the extent that there could be something to be said for hearing it first (q.v. my review of Mahler's 4th Symphony, which is composed and constructed back to front).

This complex work is sometimes bewildering to follow, but sounds in the main beautiful and euphonious, with reassuringly simple melodies and even a seemingly tonal idiom. This encourages perseverance, and makes it one for collectors who jib at the harshness and aggressive dissonance of many modern scores. It is all held together with sure control by Jan Latham-Koenig, conductor in chief of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (where he leads an enterprising concert schedule) with (mainly) Danish forces and singers, too numerous to name (Siddharta Gotama is well taken by Stig Fogh Andersen, with Aage Haugland and Edith Guillaume in other lead parts).

There is a pendant, in the form of a concerto for percussion and orchestra For a Change (1983), which unfolds the motifs and rhythms Siddharta met as he left the illusionary world of the palace, with Gert Mortensen the impressive soloist. Its title refers to the I Ching from which Norgard chose four of sixty-four existential stages. It moves from 'claustrophobic closed circuits' to (temporary) liberation with the 'gentle, penetrating' lyricism of the third movement, and onwards 'towards completion' in which 'the stratified world of rhythm triumphs supreme'.

The presentation, as the above quotations will have indicated, is comprehensive and exemplary, and there are parallel translations from the (obscure and difficult to follow) Danish into English and German. The 1984 /1995 ADD recording is perfectly satisfactory and I am happy to recommend this essential acquisition for those interested to explore this important composer.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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