Koncerthuset Copenhagen – Nørgård & Mahler

Symphony No.7 [First public performance]
Symphony No.2 (Resurrection)

Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano) & Iris Vermillion (mezzo-soprano)

Danish National Vocal Ensemble/DR
Danish National Concert Choir/DR

Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR
Thomas Dausgaard

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 29 January, 2009
Venue: Koncerthuset, Copenhagen, Denmark

Koncerthuset, Copenhagen, DenmarkIt may have been completed almost two years late and come in well over budget, but Koncerthuset – the new concert-hall at the heart of the broadcasting and media complex that is DR Byen (Danish Radio City), in the Ørestad district south of central Copenhagen – was undoubtedly worth the wait.

Designed by the renowned French architect Jean Nouvel (who has previously overseen comparable projects in Lucerne, Lyon and Paris), in collaboration with the Japanese acoustics team of Nagata Acoustics, Koncerthuset has four ‘studios’ of varying size and purpose – with the 1800-capacity Studio 1 the performance base for the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and its highly regarded Chief Conductor Thomas Dausgaard. With its intermeshing shades of brown, chocolate and ochre, complemented by understated light projections in the foyer areas, the hall certainly looks as good as it sounds; acoustically, the spacious yet wide-ranging sound – which, given the evident care taken over the positioning of seats, should have consistency throughout the auditorium – seems sure to make Copenhagen a regular stopping-point on the itinerary of international orchestras and soloists.

Although it officially opened with a gala evening on 17 January, this concert marked the DNSO’s first appearance at Koncerthuset during its current Winter season and brought together two symphonies written some 110 years apart. Being the most significant living Danish composer, Per Nørgård had naturally been commissioned and the first public performance of his Seventh Symphony (2006) duly occupied the first half. As with its two predecessors, this work confronts the perennial challenges of symphonic writing head-on – its three movements (lasting 27 minutes) bringing a Classical rigour and focus to bear on material that, in common with Nørgård’s music these past two decades, has an aural and expressive spontaneity such as offers numerous possibilities but also a ready incitement to listening: the expected and unpredictable brought into a poised and constantly changing accord.

Thus the first movement plays on the principal of sonata form by channelling the process of formal intensification inwards in those latter stages where it is usually projected outwards, creating a sense of expectancy that is maintained throughout the second movement’s deft play on ternary form then brought to fruition in the third movement’s equally artful take on sonata-rondo form. The outcome is no less intriguing: Nørgård setting up several ‘false endings’ which, during the final minutes, emerge at various textural levels before coalescing into a conclusion yet more provisional than any of them. (These artists have recorded Nørgård’s Third and Seventh symphonies on Dacapo 6.220547.)

Thomas Dausgaard. Photograph: Marianne GrondhalA work, then, that demands responsive playing and perceptive conducting such as it received here – the DNSO alive to its translucent textures (percussion often to the fore in a diverse but far from expansive orchestra), and Dausgaard directing with a sure but never restrictive idea as to where the work is headed; easy to understand why he has become Nørgård’s conductor of choice over recent years. Indeed, from a select handful of composers who continue to cultivate ‘the symphony’, none can approach Nørgård in the subtlety and consistency with which he addresses the genre’s past and present.

The second half of the concert was given over to Mahler’s Second Symphony (Resurrection), which might be thought the ideal choice for such an occasion, and this account certainly had the measure of a work that can easily falter under the weight of its own ambition. Dausgaard adopted a swift but not inflexible tempo for the opening movement – its extremes of violence and repose convincingly harnessed, albeit with a marginal falling off of intensity in the reprise and a less than fateful finality in the coda. Elegantly rendered without being indulged, the Andante prepared naturally for a scherzo that exuded just the right degree of malevolent irony and not a little nostalgia. The warm but never cloying mezzo of Iris Vermillion was well suited to the naïveté of the ensuing ‘Urlicht’ setting, while she and Inger Dam-Jensen were no less evocative or poetic in their contribution to the vast finale.

Dausgaard excelled in the final movement’s opening stages – ensuring that what can feel a disparate sequence of vividly contrasted episodes yielded a demonstrable symphonic cohesion and purpose, with the offstage brass contributions skilfully dovetailed into the overall texture. If the setting of Klopstock that provides the apotheosis was a little underwhelming, this was no fault of the Danish National Vocal Ensemble and the Danish National Concert Choir, the singers evinced an expressive fervour out of all proportion to their numbers. Rather Dausgaard chose to emphasise its symphonic conviction as opposed to its emotional potency – an emphasis that ought to stand him in good stead for the later Mahler symphonies (he has the Fifth scheduled for March). It certainly set the seal on an evening that launched a new era for the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, and for music-making in the Danish capital, in impressive fashion.

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