> Per Norgard - Songs [GH]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Per NORGARD (b.1932)

Det abne Op.2 (1952-55); Six Songs Op.14 (1956-7); Fred (1955) Landskabsbillede (1961); Golgotha (1962); Tue Bentsons viser Op.27 (1960); Du skal plante et tra (1967); Aret (1976); Himmelfaden (1985); Stjernespejl (1987) 3 Magdalene-sange (1991)
Lars Thodberg Bertelsen (baritone)
Per Norgard (piano)
Recorded in DR Radio House Studio 2 May/November 2000
DACAPO 8.224170 [76.14]


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I have set out the recorded songs above chronologically and not in the order in which they are recorded because I want the reader to understand that they represent examples of the genre composed by Norgard over almost a forty-year period. He has written songs regularly and consistently throughout his life and his various stylistic changes, which one finds in more public works like the symphonies, are reflected also in these pieces.

I have always admired Norgard’s First Symphony ‘Sinfonia austera’ of 1955, and whilst assimilating this CD I listened again to that work (Chandos CHAN 9450). Unsentimental, craggy and yes, austere. I was expecting to hear that work reflected in the songs from the early 1950s, written when the composer was still a pupil of Vagn Holmboe. I did not listen to this CD in the recorded order but began with the Op.2, settings of Paul la Cour (tracks 6-8). This is tough music just as expected. The excellent CD booklet notes by Ivan Hansen talk of their "autumn-dark" mood, and of "their weighty character". Like other settings in this collection these songs are full of impressions of Jutland with its "resentful rocks, ripped from the bowels of the earth". This granitic music is the Norgard I know, but somehow can’t love.

I was in for a surprise however with the Op.14 songs. These are scattered around the CD disrupting the moods just in case you felt like playing it right through; something I would not recommend. I can’t imagine that DACAPO really thought that would happen. If the recording had been presented chronologically it would have made more sense. However, these songs are often folk-inspired. The folk influence is betrayed by attractive, memorable tunes, use of modality (even if it is chromatically coloured) and the nature of the chosen texts. A good example is ‘My Leaves, my little tree/Green now, my little tree/ Rock him, you green boughs". This is a poem by Jobs V. Jensen and the song opens the CD.

At times there is an innocence about these pieces. ‘Dream Songs’ (track 12) begins unaccompanied in the manner of folksong. The entry of the piano adds to the pastoral atmosphere. It comes as quite a surprise to discover that this song is from 1981/7.

But in fact we have jumped ahead too soon. We should return to the period around 1960 when Norgard started to use serial technique. This was at the time of his last works to be given an opus number: the six songs Op.27. At the time these would have been at the cutting edge of the avant-garde. Not only are they atonal but the piano accompaniments are often pointillistic in the extreme. The baritone is asked to employ parlando, (completely so in Song 1) and sprechgesang in the style of Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ and Berg’s ‘Wozzeck’. Curiously enough Lars Thodberg Bertelsen who, up to this point chronologically speaking, has been rather gentle, even under characterising the songs suddenly emerges as a singer-actor with a very fine musicianly grasp of the power of this complex music. These pieces really come alive in a way that the earlier ones did not but how old-fashioned they now seem.

Norgard created something he called ‘an infinite series’. This helped develop his language still further in the ’sixties and ’seventies, leading us to the song ‘Aret’ (the year) of 1976, completed shortly after the 3rd Symphony. The infinite series basically allows for diatonic as well as chromatic tone rows. This permits the symphony to radiate the general feeling of a tonal core around which a gamut of sounds can operate: harmonics, cluster chords etc. This style is represented in ‘Aret’.

Norgard moved on from this using tonality in a more original way as in the last songs. These are represented particularly by the ‘3 Magdalene-sange’. These are predominantly slow and deeply expressive. The second one ‘Drommestemmer’ allowing, in its onomatopoeia a long humming note for ‘dromme’ etc.

The speed of many of the songs is slow or of a medium tempo. This is quite in character with most Scandinavian songs, Sibelius for example and Nystroem. The occasional lighter song like ‘Drommesang’ (track 12), with its unusual phrase lengths and catchy offbeat refrain, makes a very pleasant respite.

The last song on the CD, ‘Star Mirror’ of 1987, is, in my view, utterly tedious. We hear an uninteresting melody over rather unhelpful harmonies repeated for each of the nine verses. Surely another song from this period might have been chosen. It ends the CD somewhat unfortunately.

There is no doubt that having Norgard as accompanist is quite an attraction. Surely these are authentic performances, the composer admits as much in his little accompanying comments when he, quite rightly, praises Lars Bertelsen. He is technically on top of everything and is recorded in an ideal balance throughout.

The jury is still out on Norgard. I wasn’t so impressed with the recent 6th Symphony heard at the Proms, and these songs are a mixed bunch. I can’t say that I go much on his choice of poetry either. A Danish friend of mine read them and agreed that the translations by James Manley were eloquent and poetic but said openly that the poems were all second-rate or worse. Still, second-rate poetry can make first-rate music, and sometimes it almost does. The more I have listened the more I have enjoyed, so I can only say, try it for yourself.

Gary Higginson

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