Symphony No.1 (Sinfonia austera)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded in May 2013 in Konzerthaus, Vienna – 16 & 17 (Symphony No.1) and 25 & 26
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: December 2014
CD No: DACAPO 6.220574
Duration: 57 minutes
A release of several firsts – the world premiere recording of Per Nørgård’s Symphony No.8 (2011) and the first time the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra has recorded the music of this Danish composer – perhaps even the first time it has recorded music by any Dane.
Nørgård (born 1932) now has six decades experience as an author of symphonic music. He completed his First Symphony, ‘Sinfonia Austera’, in 1953, when he was in correspondence with Sibelius. He revised the Symphony three years later. The music appears to bear the emotional scars of the Second World War – at least its language suggests some common ground with Shostakovich’s ‘war symphonies’, and Sibelius himself is used as a reference point with a direct quotation from Tapiola.
That said, Nørgård’s is a very individual and fascinating voice, from the opening reedy and grainy orchestration to the formidably emotional momentum that he builds through the first movement, with woodwind calls against tremulous strings. This can be music of terrifying bleakness, such as in the brooding and intense slow movement, especially in this persuasively delivered account. Feelings run high and the driven finale courses its way through to a seismic coda that leaves the Symphony seemingly unrelieved. The Vienna Philharmonic gives an exceptionally disciplined account of unremitting force, and when the battery of percussion is called into use there is awesome power.
Comparing this work with the Eighth Symphony reveals the extent of Nørgård’s development as a symphonic composer. It proves the ideal complement to the ‘Austera’, presenting as it does a freedom of expression, rhythm and melody. The sound is much more frolicsome, too, with clarinets, trumpets and other bright instruments ducking and diving, their musical motifs restless and elusive but there is also a smile evident.
Despite his use of a large orchestra Nørgård keeps the textures light, gradually becoming dappled, especially when the piano and the harp are involved, with rippling sonorities disturbed only by the fleeting passing of a bluesy violin towards the end of the first movement. The initially wistful second lies thick with string chords, but soon lifts out of its drowsiness into a faster, more anguished passage. The finale climaxes in a massive wall of sound, the effect akin to rushing to the edge of a cliff to see the view and then standing there, motionless, the panorama extending far into the distance
The recording of both Symphonies is excellent – No.8 is taken from two concerts in the Konzerthaus – the performances even more so, Sakari Oramo extracting disciplined rhythms and vivid colours to confirm Nørgård as one of the most innovative of symphonists, writing music that makes the strongest possible appeal and impact.