April 23, 2009


Rued Langgaard: Symphonies Nos. 1-16 (including two versions of No. 5); Drapa (On the Death of Edvard Grieg); Sphinx; Hvidbjerg-Drapa; Danmarks Radio; Res absùrda!? Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Danish National Choir and Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Dacapo. $69.99 (7 SACDs).

     Ostracized by the Danish musical establishment, unappreciated by audiences elsewhere in Europe even when his works could get a hearing, his career derailed by World War I after a promising symphonic debut performance in Berlin in 1913, Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) spent essentially his whole career as an outsider. He brought part of this on himself, clinging defiantly to a largely Romantic view of music in which tonality remained important and music represented a reaching for something extramusical and somehow purer and finer. But much of what happened to Langgaard was a function of rapid changes in 20th-century tastes and expectations rather than a commentary on the quality of his music. The evidence for this lies in Langgaard’s 17 symphonies, which are numbered 1-16 and which include a piano concerto and a six-minute work. Langgaard’s musical language may have been largely tonal, but his approach to the word “symphony” most emphatically was not.

     Between 1998 and 2008, Thomas Dausgaard recorded all the Langgaard symphonies and a few of his shorter orchestral works, and the totality of this production is now available as a boxed set. This will likely be a limited-interest issue, but it deserves to be more than that. For Langgaard, although he certainly has flaws, was an important 20th-century symphonist. His works have all the variety of the symphonies of Shostakovich – and are just as lacking in obvious musical progression from start to finish (in contrast to those of, say, Mahler). And Langgaard pushed the boundaries of symphonic form so far as to make listeners question the very definition of the word “symphony,” and thus to wonder about the importance of this major musical form in the 20th century and beyond.

     The longest of Langgaard’s symphonies is his first, which runs a full hour and dates to 1908-11 – it was completed when the composer was just 17. Subtitled “Klippepastoraler” (“Mountain Pastorals”), it feels in part like an extended tone poem (think of Richard Strauss’ slightly later “Alpine Symphony”) and in part like a series of five interconnected tone poems. This symphony is somewhat overinflated and overlong. The first and longest movement, subtitled “Surf and Glimpses of Sun,” would stand well on its own as a Lisztian portrait in music, but the symphony as a whole is really quite a lot to absorb, and with all its Sturm und Drang (more Sturm than Drang, actually), it is an impressive but not particularly involving work.

     Symphony No. 2, “Vårbrud” (“Awakening of Spring”), is here performed in its 1912-4 version (Langgaard revised it in 1933). A somewhat more modest and collected work than No. 1, it includes a soprano solo (here, Inger Dam-Jensen) singing the poem “Spring Sounds” by Emil Rittershaus in the third movement. This is one of those naïve “purity of nature” poems popular in the 19th century, set in a way that nicely caps this three-movement work.

     Symphony No. 3, “Ungdomsbrus – La melodia” (“The Flush of Youth”), is also in three movements; and it is really a piano concerto (the soloist here is Per Salo). Written in 1915-16 and revised between 1925 and 1933, this piece makes the pianist “first among equals” rather than a soloist dominating the musical discourse. It is well structured and contains interesting elements, such as the brief use of a wordless chorus in the finale; but it is less “symphonic” than, say, Brahms’ First Piano Concerto.

     Symphony No. 4, “Løvfald” (“Fall”), moves in a new direction, being in 13 movements – none longer than three minutes and two shorter than 60 seconds. Written in 1916 and revised in 1920, it is essentially a tone poem, with such section titles as “Glimpses of Sun,” “Thunder” and “Sunday Morning Bells” – and finishes with a movement marked “Forbi!” (“Over!”). This is Langgaard’s first self-referential and oddly titled movement but scarcely his last.

     Symphony No. 5 exists in two very different versions, being in this way akin to Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 4. Both of Langgaard’s “Nos. 5” were written in 1917-18; the first version was revised in 1926, the second in 1920 and again in 1931. The first version carries no subtitle, but the second has two: “Steppenatur” (“Steppe Landscape”) and “Sommersagnsdrama” (“Summer Legend Drama”). Langgaard seemed unsure just what he wanted from this symphony (or these symphonies). Both share some thematic material, but the four-movement first version develops it much less extensively than does the five-movement second version – although neither version runs as much as 20 minutes.

     Symphony No. 6, “Det Himmelrivende” (“The Heaven-Rending”), written in 1919-20 and revised in 1928-30, is in a single extended movement in theme-and-variations form, with the theme presented in two versions and then varied several times, including as a toccata and a fugue. By this time, Langgaard has clearly pushed the bounds of symphonic form beyond anything previously recognizable as being a “symphony,” although his language has remained largely tonal.

     The language itself starts to change with Symphony No. 7, although it is a mistake to read this work as a bright line of demarcation, since Langgaard revised so many earlier works after writing No. 7 in 1926 (there is also a revised version of this symphony, dating to 1932, but the 1926 version is played here). This work has no subtitle and is in the traditional four symphonic movements, although the movements bear some odd tempo indications (the finale is marked “Fastoso allegro”). Here Langgaard starts to assert the musical primacy of the Romantic ideal, creating a work that seems more backward-looking (assertively so) than anything since No. 1.

     Symphony No. 8, “Minder ved Amalienborg” (“Memories at Amalienborg”), is Langgaard’s second to use vocals: a tenor solo (here, Lars Petersen) and chorus. It was written in 1926-28 and revised in 1929-34. Although not a long work – it runs under 20 minutes – it is a very magisterial one, with words (in the third movement, not the concluding fourth) referring to a passage in the Book of Revelation.

     Symphony No. 9, “Fra Dronning Dagmars By” (“From Queen Dagmar’s City”), came only after a long hiatus during which Langgaard revised his symphonies but created no new ones. It dates to 1942 and combines elements of traditional symphonic structure (four movements with standard tempo indications) with ones of tone poems (each movement represents a scene involving the city of Ribe).

     Symphony No. 10, “Hin Torden-bolig” (“Yon Hall of Thunder”), fits the “tone poem” designation even more clearly, being written as a single extended movement and sounding quite a bit like a work by Richard Strauss. It dates to 1944-45 and looks back in some ways to Nos. 6 and 9, while in other ways developing Langgaard’s commitment to tonality and the Romantic ideal of music “standing for” something “beyond” music even further. It was written at the same time as the genuinely strange Symphony No. 11, “Ixion,” which is Langgaard’s shortest symphony (running just six minutes) and is monothematic – a puzzling work that Langgaard may have labeled “symphony” in part to show just how far he felt he could (and needed to) push the form.

     Even stranger, and not much longer (seven minutes), is Langgaard’s first post-World War II symphony, No. 12, “Hélsingeborg,” which dates to 1946. There are no fewer than 12 tempo indications in this short work, and many of them use exclamation points to emphasize an outlook that is somewhere between surrealistic and just plain weird: “Fornemt!” (“In a distinguished manner!”) and “Som trivielle dommedagsbasuner!” (“Like trivial last trumpets!”), for example. The final section – amid musical language that is still largely Romantic, although increasingly absurdist – is marked “Amok! En komponist eksploderer” (“Amok! A composer explodes”).

     After this, Symphony No. 13, “Undertro” (“Belief in Wonders”), seems almost conventional. Dating to 1946-47, it is another work in essentially a single extended movement, although it has seven clearly denoted sections and the overall feeling of acceleration almost throughout (four movements contain the word “hurtigt” [“fast”] in one form or another).

     Symphony No. 14, “Morgenen” (“The Morning”), is another vocal work, and Langgaard actually designated it “Suite for choir and orchestra” even though he also called it a symphony. Written partly in 1947-48 and completed in 1951, it is in seven movements with such titles as “De trætte står op til livet” (“The tired get up for life”) and “‘Farmænd’ farer til kontoret” (“‘Dads’ rush to the office”). Its portrayal of modern life and its accompanying angst is set against words from the Bible and, in the final movement, Langgaard’s own ironic exclamation, “Long live beauty!”

     Symphony No. 15, “Søstormen” (“The Sea Storm”), was started in 1937 but not completed until 1949. It contains a short, very effective and surprisingly lyrical Scherzo, but its Adagio funebre slow movement is more Romantic in form than in substance. However, the final movement is quite impressive. This symphony is for bass-baritone solo (here, Johan Reuter), male chorus and orchestra, and the finale is an effective tone painting of a poem called “Stormy Night” by Thøger Larsen.

     Symphony No. 16 is called “Syndflod af Sol” (“Sun Deluge”) and was seen by Langgaard as summing up his life’s work; he wrote it in 1950-51. Like No. 15, it has a very short and effective scherzo and a significantly longer but not completely gripping slow movement, here labeled Elegi (“Elegy”). This is a somewhat scattered work, incorporating a variety of techniques and looking back at some of Langgaard’s earlier pieces – perhaps less a summation than a revisiting of some of the journeys on which the composer went.

     The Dacapo boxed set also includes a few shorter Langgaard works that in some cases are more effective than his longer-form ones. Drapa (an Old Norse poem of homage) and the tone poem Sphinx, both of whose final versions date to 1913, are atmospheric and show a strong command of orchestral color. The remaining works all date to 1948 and have not been recorded before. Danmarks Radio, a short series of fanfares, is nothing much, but Hvidbjerg-Drapa, for choir, organ and orchestra, is highly impressive. It recalls a 13th-century murder in a church in Jutland and is both grand and emotionally impressive – all within three minutes.

     And then we have the most “modern” (or modernistic) work of all: Res absùrda!? for choir and orchestra. The words of the title are repeated, again and again, faster and faster, as the orchestra sends out a series of yawps in accompaniment. The piece seems self-referentially to comment on some of Langgaard’s own excesses in symphonic compression and odd titling, but it is also an indictment of technique for its own sake, and a critique of composers who avowedly turned their backs on the Romanticism that Langgaard continued to embrace. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to think about other mid-20th-century composers using elements of its approach seriously.

     These recordings are uniformly excellent in both sound and performance, arguing very strongly that Langgaard’s music – which is not always easily approachable, despite its largely tonal language – deserves to be much more widely known. The only disappointment here is the very sketchy enclosed booklet, which does not even discuss all the symphonies; does not explain the meanings of any of the works’ titles, which are by no means always easily correlated with the music; and does not even provide biographies of all the vocal soloists. It is extraordinarily poorly done – but not poorly enough to detract significantly from the wonderful job that Dausgaard and his musicians have done with Langgaard’s music itself.

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