Per Nørgård: Symphony No. 1 (Sinfonia austere), Op. 13, and Symphony No. 8. Vienna Philharmonic/Sakari Oramo, conductor. Dacapo 6.220574. Total Time: 57:09.
By Paul E. Robinson
DIGITAL REVIEW – For contemporary Nordic composers, the figure of Sibelius continues to cast a very long shadow. Several generations have passed since the death of the great Finnish master in 1957, yet his influence remains powerful. The Danish composer Per Nørgård (b. 1932) fell under the spell, perhaps most importantly in his Symphony No. 1 (1953-55, revised 1956), but much less so in his Symphony No. 8 (2010-11), given its world premiere recording in this new release from Dacapo.
Nørgård studied with Vagn Holmboe in his native Denmark and also with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He has written over 300 works including six operas, eight symphonies, choral and vocal works, and a large number of chamber music pieces. Nørgård is certainly celebrated in his own country – he is generally regarded there as the greatest Danish composer since Nielsen – he is still largely unknown and unplayed in North America. While the New York Philharmonic ignored him for most of his life, they did award him the Marie-Josée Kravis Prize for New Music in 2014. The prize included $200,00 and a commission to write a new piece for the orchestra. Alan Gilbert led soloist Eric Bartlett in Nørgård’s Cello Concerto No. 2 (Momentum) in 2015 and gave the U.S. premiere of the Symphony No. 8 in 2018. Scandanavia House in New York also presented “Nørgård in New York” in 2016; this three-day festival consisted of mostly chamber music by Nørgård. While New York was very late coming to the party, other U.S. cities and orchestras are still unaware that there is a party.
Nørgård wrote his First Symphony at the age of 21 and, perhaps not surprisingly, it could be mistaken for one of the late works of Sibelius. The opening bars with solos for bass clarinet and other winds over a soft timpani roll recall the opening of the Finnish composer’s Symphony No. 1. The symphony abounds in long-limbed, mysterious melodies, building to dramatic climaxes, again echoing the Sibelius style with some added chromaticism. But there is originality here, too. The first movement, mainly dark and brooding, is masterfully constructed from a few brief thematic ideas. The climax of the movement is tumultuous and searing, but surprisingly it ends with a quiet major chord. There is more brooding in the slow movement, marked Calmo molto affetuoso. By contrast the last movement has the tempo marking Allegro impetuoso and is much more extroverted; its character suggests that Nørgård had been studying Nielsen, too. The climax is dominated by sustained trumpets with frequent and powerful timpani punctuation. The mood of the movement is decidedly frenetic, but everything is seemingly resolved in a blaze of major chords.
As the years went by, Nørgård expanded his musical horizons and paid particular attention to serialism. But he developed his own more complex version, which he called “the infinite series.” This compositional technique is based on mathematical formulas used to determine sequences of notes. It is incredibly complicated and virtually impossible for listeners to discern as they listen to the music. (Anyone interested in learning more about the infinite series is referred to this highly technical article: http://math.usak.ca/~au/AuDS17a.pdf; or here: http://unsungsymphonies.blogspot.com/2010/08/master-of-infinite-series-nrgards.html.)
Nørgård composed his Symphony No. 8 at the age of 78, and it may well turn out to be his last symphony. It is not clear whether this work makes use of the infinite series technique, but it is certainly more contemporary in style than the Symphony No. 1. More than 57 years have passed, and Nørgård’s music has evolved through many stages of development. In addition, as the composer puts it, “Each of my symphonies has its own personality which cannot be repeated.” In the Symphony No. 8 the Sibelian brooding lyricism of the First Symphony is left far behind and replaced by a mood of sustained lightheartedness. The first movement offers playful dance music as if experienced through a distorting mirror – and with chirping woodwinds prominent. As the music unfolds, one becomes less aware of individual instruments or melodies and more conscious of impressionistic washes of sound, layer upon layer. The last movement is based on ascending scale patterns punctuated by periodic brass outbursts. Then percussion drives the music forward with insistent and somewhat jazzy rhythms. The symphony ends on a note of quiet stasis.
Both symphonies are substantial and impressive pieces that deserve to be performed more widely. This new recording should help generate interest in the music of this important composer. There have been several recordings of the Symphony No. 1 – most importantly by Leif Segerstam and the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Chandos CHAN9450) – but none by an orchestra of the stature of the Vienna Philharmonic. This orchestra is not known for its performances of 20th-century music, but under the very capable direction of Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo, they play this music with authority and total commitment. The sound quality on this Dacapo CD is excellent.