Music of the Spheres

Two Weöres Settings [Night; Morning]
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Lux aeterna
Music of the Spheres, BVN128 [UK premiere]
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

Henning Kraggerud (violin)

Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano)

Danish National Concert Choir
Danish National Vocal Ensemble

Danish National Symphony Orchestra
Thomas Dausgaard

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Thomas Dausgaard. Photograph: Marianne GrondhalThomas Dausgaard’s Prom-visits with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra have never lacked for innovation or ambition, though here he took these to new heights with a programme as unlikely as it was convincing: a three-part odyssey at whose centre was the UK premiere of a singular, indeed infamous work by Rued Langgaard.

Completed in 1918, Music of the Spheres comes from the most radical phase of Langgaard’s output and offers ample conformation of a mindset either visionary or merely eccentric. Despite this, it garnered performances in Karlsruhe in 1921 and Berlin the next year; remaining unheard until a revival in Stockholm in 1968 and only being given complete in Denmark as late as 1980. Few of Langgaard’s major works have been heard in the UK (Sakari Oramo gave the Fourth Symphony in Birmingham almost a decade ago), making this Proms performance an event of some significance.

Having recorded a definitive cycle of the symphonies and conducted an astonishing production of the opera “Antikrist”, Dausgaard’s credentials could hardly be in doubt and this account conveyed the music’s recalcitrant yet mesmeric fervour in full measure. At 42 minutes there can have been few lengthier readings, the conductor drawing every subtlety from a score in which a predominantly hushed dynamic level does not preclude a wealth of textural and motivic detail from emerging. Nor was there any obvious lack of cumulative momentum, the myriad individual ‘events’ (though continuous, the work falls into 15 sections – their titles whimsical and fanciful by turns – which are useful primers for the imagery and emotions Langgaard sought to convey) being steered towards a climactic focal point with unfailing concentration.

Although it was given several times in Copenhagen’s impressive Koncerthuset last year (one of which has been released as a Dacapo SACD) the work is ideally suited to the Royal Albert Hall, its acoustic enables one to savour the sheer range of Langgaard’s aural imagination: from the filigree chord-clusters that flit across the opening stages, via incantatory writing for four sets of timpani, densely heterophonic string passages then a wistful setting for offstage soprano (ethereally sung by Inger Dam-Jensen) and an ensemble placed at the rear of the gallery so their contributions melded spatially with that on the platform to spellbinding effect, before culminating in an apotheosis whose relative vastness was still capped by the transcendent close.

Here as throughout, the response of the DNSO – whether as individuals or as an ensemble – and its finely attuned choirs left no doubt as to their commitment and sensitivity. As a listening experience, the work offers a no less fascinating insight into audience psychology. Audibly restless for the first 10 minutes, a near capacity RAH gradually found its way onto the music’s wavelength such that the latter stages were intently received and the final reception warmly but not mindlessly enthusiastic. Langgaard initially subtitled the work ‘A Fantasy of Life and Death’, and the gist of what that implies clearly impressed itself on those present: one reason why, almost a century on, Music of the Spheres remains a work of, for and ahead of its time.

Nor did Dausgaard misread the context for presenting so inimitable a piece – Ligeti’s “Lux aeterna” (1966) establishing the requisite calm and remoteness in its exploration of intricate polyphonic textures within a luminous harmonic framework. The Danish National Vocal Ensemble did it justice and was no less inside the more immediate idiom of “Night” and “Morning” (both 1955), vividly descriptive miniatures that combine aspects of the madrigal tradition with those inherited from Kodály and Orff to engaging effect.

Henning KraggerudOpening the concert with these latter then proceeding directly into Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was a risky strategy that came off handsomely – Henning Kraggerud emerging from the orchestra’s strings to deliver a performance of unusual poise and clarity, while not lacking the necessary warmth, affection or – notably in a tensile reading of the cadenza – virtuosity. Dausgaard abetted him with an accompaniment that stressed the music’s chamber-like deftness and transparency, though the tuttis framing the first movement’s development were powerfully projected and, after a melting account of the central ‘Canzonetta’, the finale had incisiveness and, during its closing stages, energy to spare. As had Kraggerud, who offered an encore, Fantasy on a Theme by Ole Bull possibly by Kraggerud himself and given with due panache.

No entrée into the final part of the concert, though Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony (1919, revised) hardly requires one in any case. The performance itself was a fine one – accumulating intensity as it should in the first movement’s double exposition then, with Dausgaard pointedly underplaying the main climax, its scherzo continuation built gradually but intently to a visceral conclusion. The second movement was almost ideally rendered in terms of a leisurely intermezzo that admitted of more ominous qualities on its way to a piquant ending, while the finale was finely thought-through – the ‘swan’ theme lacking little in fervency though kept moving so that its full majesty only became apparent in a blazing peroration. Dausgaard pushed onward impulsively towards its conclusion, despatching those concluding six chords with a brusque sense of finality.

A long evening that yet evinced no falling off of conviction on the part of the DNSO, or enthusiasm on that of the audience, was extended by a canter through ‘Ariel’s Song’ from Sibelius’s music for The Tempest and then a dash through the spirited Champagne Galop by Hans Christian Lumbye (“the Johann Strauss of the North”). Transcendence and titillation – this concert had it all and, as such, could well prove to be the Prom of the season.

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