Per NØRGÅRD (b. 1932)
Symphony No. 4 (1981) [19:38]
Symphony No. 5 (1987-1990, rev. 1991) [36:14]
Oslo Philharmonic/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]
Per Nørgård didn’t so much swim into my ken as break
down the door with his tragic and excoriating opera Der göttliche
Tivoli; indeed, that Dacapo release was one of my picks for 2010
After that came the ‘tantalising tone-feasts’ of A Light
Hour, which finds the composer in a much more relaxed and accessible
However, the best was still to come: resplendent readings of the First
and Eighth symphonies with Sakari Oramo and the Wiener Philharmoniker.
Really, I had no choice but to make that one of my Recordings of
the Year for 2014 (review).
Given that Nørgård’s eight symphonies offer music of such strength
and quality it’s surprising that there are so few recordings of
these works in the catalogue. Happily, those that we do have are excellent.
I’m referring to Leif Segerstam’s Chandos traversal –
Nos. 1 to 5 – to which must be added Thomas Dausgaard’s
Seventh (Dacapo 6.220547) and, of course, Oramo’s First and Eighth.
Segerstam’s coupling of the Fourth and Fifth – recorded
with the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1996 – is
my default comparative here (CHAN9533).
I first encountered the Finnish conductor John Storgårds in Kalevi Aho’s
Symphony No. 12 ‘Luosto‘, premiered on a mountainside in
Lapland; as it happens that was one of my Recordings of the Year
in 2008 (review).
Storgårds has stayed true to his Nordic roots with more Aho (review)
and, most recently, the symphonies of Nielsen
and Sibelius. In his booklet essay he traces his relationship with Nørgård’s
music back to a Finnish music festival in 1999, when he was still a
violinist. As a conductor he went on to commission and premiere the
Eighth Symphony; he also introduced the Seventh to Britain at the BBC
Proms in 2012. Storgårds and the Oslo Phil have just recorded Nos. 2
and 6, which I hope to review soon (6.220645).
I’ve already mentioned that extraordinary opera, Der göttliche
Tivoli, which focuses on the fractured genius of Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930),
a Swiss artist who spent most of his life in a mental hospital. As the
ever-reliable and engaging Jens Cornelius points out in his liner-notes,
that multi-talented outsider’s life and work made a profound impression
on Nørgård; indeed, the two movements of the Fourth Symphony –
Indian Rose Garden and Chinese Witch Lake - are taken
from a piece that Wölfli planned but never realised.
The gong-drenched start to No. 4 couldn’t be further from clichéd
orientalism; indeed, there’s a haunted quality to the writing
that’s both immersive and unsettling. The superb recording makes
the most of Nørgård’s iridescent colours and transparent textures
– both the CD and Super Audio layers sound magnificent –
and Storgårds proves himself a steady guide. But it’s Nørgård’s
knack of blending accessibility with substance that’s impressed
me most. Newcomers have nothing to fear and old hands will just be grateful
to have this music presented in such an accomplished way.
The wild second movement brings to mind Jón Leifs and Anders Hillborg
at their implosive best. Nørgård’s judicious but telling use of
pounding drums and braying brass is both intoxicating and intense; whether
louring, sliding, stuttering or just fading to black this is ear-tweaking
stuff, expertly played, directed and recorded. I was so taken with this
performance that I listened to it repeatedly, each time revelling in
its strange, elemental beauty. It’s a short piece – it plays
for less than 20 minutes – and that certainly helps to sustain
tension and interest.
Nørgård’s Fifth has a more concentrated narrative, yet even here
there’s much to please the ear and engage the brain. For me the
first movement, Moderato – piú allegro, is Mahler viewed
through a dark, distorting lens. It’s most disconcerting, this
transmogrification, but that’s just one fascinating aspect of
this multi-faceted score. Colour and rhythm are king, and the careening
vitality of this music is well caught by players and engineers alike.
Surprisingly, the Allegro feroce isn’t as daunting as
one might expect. Pithy as ever, Nørgård delivers snatches of rhythm
and melody, fleeting glimpses of other places and other times. In short,
this is music with a history, not a piece conceived in self-absorbed
Sceptics might be tempted to say they have heard it all before; in outline,
yes, but there’s a very human and beguiling hand at work here;
so much so that even those generally allergic to such uncompromising
repertoire will be drawn to Nørgård’s intriguing trajectories.
And what a curious, rather desiccated Andante this is, yet
strangely redolent of something much fuller and richer. Again I can’t
shake memories of Mahler, whose angst and sudden eloquence never seem
too far away. As for the Allegro robusto it’s another
of those sense-sating swirls of contrasting rhythms and sonorities.
Storgårds is firmly in control and the Oslo Phil play with commitment
and energy throughout.
How do Segerstam and his orchestra compare in these two symphonies?
For a start that rose garden is less evocative, and that drains the
music of some scent and colour. That said, the more lyrical pages are
beautifully done. And even though he’s gnarlier in the second
movement Segerstam doesn’t arrest and startle the listener in
the way that Storgårds does. I suspect that has quite a lot to do with
Chandos’s soft-edged sound, which isn’t as strongly etched
as Dacapo’s. Still, there’s no denying the thought and thrust
of Segerstam’s reading; indeed, some may find his considered view
of this symphony more congenial than Storgårds’ rather volatile
The same applies to Segerstam’s account of the Fifth, although
one could argue – with some justification – that he is more
reflective and, yes, more symphonic than Storgårds here. Both
conductors are compelling though, albeit in very different ways. For
instance, under Segerstam those Mahlerian echoes aren’t quite
so strong, but then his low-key approach pays dividends when it comes
to overall shape and structure. Should you ‘upgrade’ to
Storgårds? Initially I would have said yes, but listening to Segerstam
again made me hesitate. Play it safe: get both.
John Storgårds makes a strong case for these symphonies; the recording
is among Dacapo’s best.