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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 (review). After that came the ‘tantalising tone-feasts’ of A Light Hour, which finds the composer in a much more relaxed and accessible mood (review). 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 isolation.

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 one.

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.

Dan Morgan



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