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Per NØRGÅRD (b. 1932)
Symphony No. 1, ‘Sinfonia austera’, Op. 13 (1953-1955, rev. 1956) [31:04]
Symphony No. 8 (2010-2011) [26:05] *
* World premiere recording
Wiener Philharmoniker/Sakari Oramo
rec. Konzerthaus Wien, 16-17 May 2013 (Symphony No. 1); live, 25-26 May 2013 (Symphony No. 8)
reviewed as a 24/48 download
DACAPO 6.220574 SACD [57:09]

Dacapo continue to render sterling service to the cause of Danish music, past and present. One of their most prestigious and rewarding cycles, the symphonies of Rued Langgaard, is an artistic and technical milestone (review) and another – the so-called Nielsen Project with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic - looks just as promising (review). As for Per Nørgård the Dacapo recording of his opera Der göttliche Tivoli was one of my picks for 2010 (review). After the surreal comedy and stark tragedy of that excoriating piece the ‘tantalising tone-feasts’ of A Light Hour find the composer in a much more relaxed and accessible mood (review).
This coupling of his First and Eighth symphonies – his oldest and newest – is important, not least because it features the Wiener Philharmoniker in repertoire one doesn’t associate with them. On the podium is the Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo, whose guest appearances and continuing tenure as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony have won him many friends in the UK. That said, I was left somewhat dispirited by the first instalment of his BIS/Nielsen cycle with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (review).
As good as Oramo’s Swedish band undoubtedly is, having the mighty WP between the shafts must have been a very enticing prospect indeed. But what would this orchestra – renown for its big, refulgent sound - make of a symphony subtitled ‘Sinfonia austera’? From the outset it’s clear that Nørgård‘s First Symphony - modelled on Sibelius’s - has all the brooding intensity that one associates with that formidable figure. That said, there’s an astonishing muscularity to Nørgård’s writing that soon had me in its unyielding grip; as for the WP, they are at once crystal clear and darkly sonorous.
The opening Tempo moderato is full of ear-pricking incident, and Oramo has a firm hold on the reins at all times. Happily the symphony has a strong narrative and the composer’s subtle spatial effects – superbly captured by the Dacapo team – couldn’t be more atmospheric or exciting. For an early opus this is remarkably assured, and despite the composer’s acknowledged debt to Sibelius he speaks here with a voice that’s very much his own.
The Calmo molto affetuoso, with its grumbling timps and sombre pizzicati. is louring but not at all lugubrious. Most telling here is the depth and weight of sound that Oramo draws from this orchestra, whose various sections distinguish themselves at every turn. The concluding Allegro may not be as impetuous as its marking demands, but those who know and love Nielsen’s symphonies will surely cleave to this cool, clear-eyed music. The recording continues to impress, its sophistication evident in a wide, deep soundstage and panoplies of complex timbres. Musically and technically the cumulative power of the closing pages will take your breath away.
What a difference half a century makes, for the Eighth Symphony combines lighter textures with gentle calls and susurrations. Indeed, at times it’s as if Nørgård is writing for an enlarged chamber group, such is the transparency of the work’s internal banter, its good-humoured toing and froing. No dour Danes here, just a master revelling in his craft; I daresay the players also enjoyed the composer’s delicate and delightful constructs. This is wonderfully tactile and immersive music, very much a ‘tone-feast’ in its own right.
The discreet shimmer and shake of the Adagio molto is no less absorbing; it may seem paradoxical, but this music is at once plain and complex, reserved and impulsive, and it's crowned with some of the loveliest, most caressing sounds imaginable. What a garden of earthly delights this is, exotic and embracing, a feast for the ear and the mind’s eye. As for the concluding Più mosso – Lento visionario its fruited interjections, patter of tom toms and dry bass-drum thuds merely underline that sense of a strange but covetable otherness. Yes it’s been done before, but not with such penetrating clarity or panache.
There’s no doubt that apart from the striking confidence and originality of these scores the playing of this peerless band has much to do with the success of this recording. Make no mistake, Oramo proves himself a sensitive and stylish interpreter of these symphonies; indeed, I did wonder if Oramo's Nielsen would have jelled for me if he'd been conducting the Vienna Phil rather than the Stockholm one. Idle fancies aside Oramo has done an impeccable job here, as have the recording engineers. Rarely have I heard a live recording – in this case the Eighth Symphony - so without blemish or hint of compromise. The audience is mouse-quiet and there’s no applause. As always Jens Cornelius’s booklet notes reflect his enthusiasm for the music at hand.
Two very different works, supremely well played, conducted and recorded; surely one of the year's finest symphonic releases thus far.
Dan Morgan