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Per NØRGÅRD (b. 1932)
Symphony No. 2 - In One Movement (1970, rev. 1971) [23:06]
Symphony No. 6, At the end of the day (1999) [31:15]
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgårds
rec. 1-5 June 2015, Oslo Opera House orchestra rehearsal room (2); 25-28 May 2015, Oslo Konserthus (6)
DACAPO 6.220645 SACD [54:21]

Per NØRGÅRD (b. 1932)
Symphony No. 4 (1981) [19:38]
Symphony No. 5 (1987-1990, rev. 1991) [36:14]
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgårds
rec. 1-5 June 2015, Oslo Opera House rehearsal room (4); 25-28 May 2015, Oslo Konserthus (5)
DACAPO 6.220646 SACD [55:52]

I first became aware of Per Nørgård’s music about twenty years ago via his string quartets played by the Kontra Quartet (Kontrapunkt 32015). I progressed to his Concerto for Viola and Chamber Orchestra Remembering Child with Pinchas Zukerman (DaCapo DCCD 9002) and then Borderlines and Voyage into the Golden Screen (DaCapo 8.226014). That’s as far as it went.

Nørgård studied with Vagn Holmboe at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, and later with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. The Nordic styles of Sibelius, Nielsen and Holmboe were early influences. He then started exploring modernist techniques which led him to serial composition based on the ‘infinity series’. This he employed in Voyage into the Golden Screen and the Second and Third Symphonies. His compositional oeuvre to date consists of six operas, two ballets, eight symphonies, concertos, choral works and chamber music, of which there are ten string quartets.

On the back of the success of Voyage into the Golden Screen, Nørgård quickly followed up with the one-movement Symphony No. 2 - "A tribute to the power ... of the infinity series" (booklet). Increasing the series of notes from the previous work’s 1000 to 4096 of uninterrupted quavers, he profited from greater scope to construct melodies and climaxes. The feeling is one of timelessness and unfolding in waves of sound; the effect is hypnotic. To establish structure, the music is divided into 16 phrases defined by bell sounds, and each fourth phrase is marked by a brass fanfare. The flutes have a prominent role. Towards the end, Nørgård builds the music up to a startling climax, employing a myriad panoply of instrumental textures. Then, in the final bars, the music dissolves into silence. Storgårds' pacing of the work adds to its potency, effectively bringing cohesion to its cumulative narrative.

Symphony No. 6, At the end of the day, was a joint commission by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, the Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra and the Oslo Philharmonic to herald the Millennium. Dedicated to the composer’s wife Helle Rahbæk Nørgård, it was first performed in early January 2000. It’s more upbeat than the other symphonies, and more classically framed with its fast-slow-fast three movement pattern. The outer movements are ebullient and frame a dark, sombre Lentissimo passacaglia, sketching a vision, to my mind at least, of a figure wandering in a gloomy, unfamiliar landscape. It’s scoring is resourceful, Nørgård proving himself an alchemist and master of colour. He blends several unusual instruments into the mix, including double bass trombone, double bass tuba and double bass clarinet. I’m particularly enamoured by the finale, a quirky and capricious romp, infused with a surfeit of wit, and sprinkled with a luscious helping of rumbustiousness. The brass section of the orchestra I would single out for special mention – their rasping growls are irresistible.

In 1979, the composer encountered the art works of Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930) in Denmark. The Swiss artist spent most of his life in a mental hospital, having been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Some see his split personality reflected in the prolific collection of texts, art works and musical fragments that he produced. In 1912 he’d planned a musical work entitled Indischer Roosen-Gaarten und Chineesischer Hexen-See (Indian Rose Garden and Chinese Witch’s Lake), but the project was never realized. Nørgård used these titles for his two-movement Fourth Symphony, subtitled Hommage à Adolf Wölfli, adding that the work is ‘a handshake with a friend, with thanks for a good idea’. Luminous glissandi open the first movement, evoking a sinister sound-world. At times there’s a threatening persistence. Storgårds achieves some well-controlled dynamic variance and convincing orchestral colour. The portrayal of birdsong motifs in the second half are extremely effective. The second movement follows abruptly without a break. The orchestra unleashes chaos and discord, and the atmosphere of portent and impending catastrophe is overwhelming.

As part of a Nordic triptych including the fifth symphonies of Sibelius and Nielsen, Nørgård’s Fifth had its premiere; the year was 1990, the orchestra the Danish National Symphony, and the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, the dedicatee. A large-scale canvas, the work is divided into five sections, though the composer was anxious for the listener to decide on the number of movements. The upsurges of the first part are reminiscent of lava boiling and erupting, underpinned by unease and instability. Impressive are the wonderful sonorities, with each section of the orchestra given its moment to shine. In the second section, noises resembling seabirds invade the landscape and, at one point, 'Jingle Bells' briefly pops its head around the corner. Two more subdued sections follow where the drama subsides, Nørgård seemingly taming his forces. Then the energy builds up for the sprint to the finishing line. Chaos reigns, and the work ends in a coruscating whirlwind of sonic splendour. Storgård adroitly steers the Oslo Philharmonic deftly through the peaks and troughs of this complex score.

These four symphonies complete DaCapo’s cycle begun in 2009 with Thomas Dausgaard conducting the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in the Third and Seventh (Dacapo 6.220457), and in 2014 with Sakari Oramo and the Vienna Philharmonic adding the First and Eighth.

In vivid, well recorded sound, orchestral detail is sharp and defined. Jens Cornelius’ annotations provide in-depth background to the symphonies.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous reviews (Dan Morgan): Symphonies 2 & 6 ~ Symphonies 4 & 5



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