Three years ago Thomas Dausgaard caused quite a stir with the UK premiere of Rued Langgaard’s Music of the Spheres. Its transcendent vision represents one extreme of its composer’s thinking: the other extreme being encapsulated in the Eleventh Symphony (1945) that here provided the most unlikely curtain-raiser. With a mythological subtitle which evokes images of misfortune and lack of fulfilment such as Langgaard himself experienced throughout the greater part of his career, ‘Ixion’ (as with several later pieces) takes repetition to the point of inanity over its six minutes – a large orchestra belatedly joined by four tubas whose intoning of the main motif ominously reinforces the music’s emotional paralysis.
While Langgaard’s music has made some headway in Britain over the past decade, that of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (80 this year) remains all but unknown – making this late inclusion (replacing the advertised commission by Benedict Mason) of his most recent orchestral work the more welcome. In contrast to the protean inclusivity and methodical understatement of his respective contemporaries Per Nørgård and Ib Norholm, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen has long favoured interplay of opposing and antagonistic elements with seemingly minimal regard for what might come about. Yet beneath the outward anarchy is a formal as well as expressive clarity that carries the inquiring listener through whatever degree of discontinuity or even mayhem towards a determined focal-point.
Incontri (2010) is a significant example of his recent music: taking the ‘encounters’ of its title (with perhaps a nod to one of Nono’s seminal pieces from the 1950s), this 15-minute work – poised (unwittingly?) between a concert overture and a tone poem – pursues a nominally free-wheeling course in which the orchestral components stake out their territories with potentially explosive consequences (witness the Varèse-like brass writing) allied to a virtuosity the composer has described as “jungle Baroque”, only for a shimmering string passage to instigate the channelling of momentum towards the seismic climax followed by a laconic signing-off; the whole being effortlessly conveyed in this impressive performance.
It was standard fare for the remainder of the programme, with Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto (1959) sounding the more ‘classical’ in such a context. Not that the reading was in any sense underpowered – Daniel Müller-Schott dispatching it with technical finesse that afforded space for the barbed irony and sardonic juxtaposition of populist and Jewish elements which permeate the vigorous outer movements. Nor did Müller-Schott pass over the Moderato marking of the second movement, ensuring its alternation between the soulful and whimsical was kept moving on the way to a heartfelt climax that made the coda’s rapt inwardness the more affecting, while the ‘Cadenza’ more than usually justified its third- movement status with a cumulative unfolding that took in all of the work’s expressive guises. With Dausgaard securing a committed as well as perceptive response from a scaled-down BBC Symphony Orchestra, this was an account to savour.
If the reading of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony (1893) was not quite on this level, this was largely owing to its rhetorical element being downplayed in what was a persuasively realised yet seldom moving interpretation. Thus the elaborate formal trajectory of the first movement was attentively handled without yielding the ultimate in pathos during the second subject’s ‘big tune’ and with the central development incisive rather than explosive, though the coda had just the right easeful resignation. The Waltz evinced elegance and poise, though its more restive central section was a little passive, while the third movement had a viable balance between its capricious initial half and the martial ruthlessness which takes hold as it powers to its brutal close; after which, the finale brought not so much stark tragedy as a stoic resignation that accorded well with Dausgaard’s overall approach. The initial bars had been drowned out by residual applause from the previous movement (other movements were clapped too): who ever said that audiences go to hear Tchaikovsky so as to celebrate the cult of themselves?