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/John Storgårds
rec. 1-5 June 2015, Oslo Opera House orchestra rehearsal room (2); 25-28 May 2015, Oslo Konserthus (6)
Reviewed as a 24/88.2 download
Pdf booklet included
DACAPO 6.220645 SACD [54:21]

The Finnish conductor John Storgårds has just recorded superb accounts of Per Nørgård’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies (review). I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised, given that his association with this composer goes back to a Finnish music festival in 1999; at the time Storgårds was still a violinist who had yet to become a very accomplished baton waver. In that latter capacity he went on to commission Nørgård’s Eighth Symphony, the world-premiere recording of which featured Sakari Oramo and the Wiener Philharmoniker (review). That, coupled with Nørgård‘s Sinfonia austera, is a musical and sonic marvel; indeed, the album was one of my Recordings of the Year in 2014.

I suspect some will fight shy of this music in the mistaken belief that the words ‘Danish’ and ‘contemporary’ add up to an acid bath. Nothing could be further from the truth. For instance Nørgård‘s opera Der göttliche Tivoli, a work that cracks a window on creativity and madness, has a deep humanity that alternately lifts the spirit and pummels the heart (review). We have Dacapo to thank for these splendid releases, all of which should appeal to those who want a challenge that includes a substantial reward at the end; as for audiophiles, they will know this label prides itself on top-notch sonics.

In the 1960s Nørgård broke the serial logjam with his ‘infinite series’, which managed to combine accessibility with what Jens Cornelius calls ‘modernist rigour’. It’s a fascinating concept that’s very well explained in the liner-notes. Indeed, it underpins the one-movement Second Symphony, composed in 1970 and revised a year later. It’s a startling piece, beamed in as if from a distant universe; it also calls for sustained concentration and a rock-solid technique, both of which the Oslo Philharmonic supply at every turn.

This radiant and all-encompassing sound world is truly celestial in character, and the tonal sophistication of this recording – engineered by Mikkel Nymand and Mette Due – is frankly formidable. No, this isn’t musical wallpaper: the symphony has a strong narrative – a Scheherazade-like compulsion – that enthralls to the end. Part of the work’s allure is its striking juxtapositions and subtle, intertwined rhythms, all of which create a finely honed, light-pulsing soundscape. As one might expect from all this wizardry the upshot is something quite wonderful.

Norgård’s Sixth Symphony, a millennial commission from three Scandinavian orchestras – the DNSO, the Oslo Phil and the Gothenburg Symphony – is a Puckish piece, witty and playful. And despite its subtitle there’s nothing clichéd about this music; it’s particoloured and packed with incident, the orchestration as vivid as it is virtuosic. The range of sonorities is impressive, its explosions arresting; and then there’s that familiar sense of other music filtered through a bespoke lens. I remarked on the Mahlerian echoes in the Fifth, and I fancy there are some here as well. After all, Mahler straddled another artistic divide – that between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – but there’s a felicity and rhythmic fluidity to Nørgård’s Sixth that is more about openness than angst.

Not only that, there’s a delight in this propulsive din that’s hard to resist. Once again the sheer novelty of the work’s harmonic strands and sound blocks is a joy to behold. Also, the material is cannily structured and judiciously worked, so there’s much to engage the ear and mind. Even the slow, dark-hued central movement has commendable energy and purpose, while the restless, often jazzy finale brings to mind the urban landscapes of Bernstein and Daugherty; there’s even something of Ives in those contrary tunes and cross-rhythms. The all-important low brass are especially well recorded and the soundstage is both deep and wide.

There’s very little competition here. Jorma Panula and the Aarhus Symphony recorded No. 2 in 1986 (Point Classics 5070), as did Leif Segerstam and the Danish National Radio SO in 1995 (Chandos CHAN9450). Thomas Dausgaard and the DNRSO set down the only other recording of No. 6 in 2001 (CHAN9904). The Segerstam Second is leaner and less colourful than Storgårds’, but the bells and big moments are still mighty impressive. As with the Fifth he displays a masterly grasp of the work’s architecture. His account of the Second is coupled with the Sinfonia austera.
Dausgaard’s Sixth, pithily precise, has its own rewards; the recording is pin sharp and there’s pleasing mix of detail and weight. Indeed, this is one of those Vesalian performances, where the flesh is flayed to expose the veins and sinew beneath the skin. Despite this surgical approach the symphony evolves naturally, emerging as a complex but coherent whole. Excellent playing, very good engineering by Jorn Jacobsen and a fine pairing – Terrain Vagues – complete a most desirable release. And that’s why I suggest anyone interested in these wonderful scores acquire all these recordings; there is so much to explore, and one’s excursions are made all the more interesting by the contrasting landscapes on offer here.

Another triumph for John Storgårds and the Oslo Phil; spectacular sound, too.

Dan Morgan

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