Prom 15: Nørgård Premiere

Symphony No.6, ’At the End of the Day’ [UK premiere]
Violin Concerto
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

Nikolaj Znaider (violin)

Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR
Thomas Dausgaard

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 30 July, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Strange the way things work out. Despite his stature as a composer and cultural thinker, Per Nørgård (born 1932) has had relatively few performances in the UK, and this concert marked his very belated Proms debut. Yet the wait was worthwhile, inasmuch as the Sixth Symphony (1999) is among his finest and most characteristic statements.

As the subtitle suggests, this is a work of conclusions and summations – but explicit in the music is a sense of new beginnings (Nørgård’s next orchestral work, Terrains Vagues – premiered by the BBCSO last year – is its continuation both musically and conceptually). The ’virtual ending’ some three minutes into the opening ’Moderato’ is typical of music whose progress is constantly impeded by surges and lapses in momentum – astutely judged so that the change from the ethereal opening phrases to the tense, bottomless gestures of the close (the orchestration is distinguished by several bass and contra-bass instruments) gives the movement a well-defined overall trajectory.

The ensuing ’Lentissimo’ blurs the distinction between motion and stasis with typically Nørgårdian subtlety, though its passacaglia-like progress ensures a perceptible degree of stability. The final ’Allegro energico’ proceeds without pause, gathering up ideas and allusions as it sweeps decisively to its magical – and magically un-final – conclusion. The musical progress resumes elsewhere, as surely as the next day will be different from the one before.

Although by no means as complex in its soundworld as the Fifth Symphony, the Sixth needs a high level of responsiveness if its Sibelian concentration of means and inevitability of motion are to be fully conveyed. That it certainly received at this performance, the Danish National Symphony (Danish Radio) overcoming the difficulties of clarity in the RAH acoustic for a performance of precision and refinement. Thomas Dausgaard steered an authoritative course through a work he has now seen through several performances and an excellent recording (CHANDOS CHAN 9904). Nørgård looked pleased with the result, and pleased to be at the Proms. With his First, Third and Fifth Symphonies, not to mention numerous concertos, still awaiting performance in this country, his return will hopefully be soon.

With the advocacy of conductors such as Osmo Vänskä and Esa-Pekka Salonen, Nielsen has fared well at the Proms in recent years. Even so, this was only the second outing for the Violin Concerto – least played among the composer’s major orchestral works, its overall sanguinity as difficult to pin down as the two-movement format is to articulate successfully. Nikolaj Znaider captured the pathos of the opening ’Praeludium’ but made rather a meal of passagework in the ensuing ’Allegro’ – which should remain affable and poised for all its bursts of quick-fire virtuosity. He was more comfortable in the self-effacing second movement and maintained an easy momentum in the main ’Rondo’ section, engaging in spirited repartee with the orchestra. Good to see that, as his international career gathers pace, Znaider is sticking with this engaging and likeable concerto.

With the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Dausgaard has been recording a diverting series of Beethoven symphonies and concertos, with the intention of moving on to other cycles of the standard repertoire. Brahms will be an interesting test, as his direct and incisive approach to the First Symphony only intermittently caught fire on this occasion. The sustained introduction was taut and implacable though the remainder of the first movement felt under-projected – with the generally excellent Danish string players sounding hard-pressed at Dausgaard’s swift and not always flexible tempo. The inner movements were elegantly poised, but only with the ’Finale’ did the performance really take off – the ’big tune’ sensibly paced, the culmination being a propulsive and affirmative coda.

A lengthy concert was then made even longer, though few would begrudge hearing the overture to Nielsen’s opera Maskarade when played with such vitality – orchestra and conductor clearly in their element as the music sped on its breathless, exhilarating course.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content