Proms 2012: Per Nørgård – Symphony No. 7 (UK Première)

Despite the understandable reluctance on the part of contemporary composers to use the word, there’s nothing quite like seeing ‘symphony’ on a concert programme to get one’s blood & expectations pumping. When the composer in question is Per Nørgård, as it was last week at the Proms, then the excitement factor ramps up even further. Composed over a period of three years, Nørgård’s Seventh Symphony was given its UK première by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by John Storgårds; it’s a decade since the first UK performance of Nørgård’s last symphony (also at the Proms), & considering the aftermath—audiences & critics very sharply divided in response to what is an admittedly hard-going work—one can imagine a fair few people came to this concert with more than usually clenched teeth.

Taken as a whole, the Seventh Symphony seems to undergo a gradual inner rupture & dissipation. The first of the three movements (Nørgård prefers the term ‘passages’) contains the Symphony‘s most demonstrative material, launching into an initial argument with multiple threads & a spritely delivery, hopping from note to note without any lingering. The tom-toms (Nørgård writes for no fewer than 14 of them) make their presence felt early on, not so much establishing a rhythmic underlay as laying down a challenge to the rest of the orchestra. It works, & the direction shifts into a brass-led episode with a wonderfully gentle sense of oom-pah to it (there are some lovely peripheral sounds at this point), getting the orchestra excited, especially the piano. Woodwinds & col legno strings continue this thought, though it eventually yields when the strings bow again, slithering aggressively & ushering in a dramatically softer section. This presents the work’s first obviously melodic material in muted brass; the strings are jittery at first, but they get drawn into & continue the melody, while the toms again can be heard at the fringes. Indirectly, they break the episode’s spell, causing the brass & strings to forge ahead loudly, & while momentum appears to be gradually building, Nørgård keeps it in check, creating an extended tension that ultimately dissolves as the orchestra retreats to softer climes.

The second movement, following short overtures from clarinet & oboe, explodes in a triadic blast of C major proportions, its aftershocks & echoes causing one to wonder whether there’s a fanfare or a chorale wanting to be heard. But instead it submerges into mystery, Nørgård hinting at the makings of something within the resultant textures, something compelling but perhaps defeated. It passes to a unified but disparate convolution of ideas—melodic shapes in the winds, held together by the brass—with a pervading sense of lushness beneath the surface, before the strings get pushy, seemingly fighting for a pulse; this pushes to the limit the sense of unity, & (like the toms in the previous movement) it becomes almost possible to hear the strings as a second music going against the prevailing pulseless material everywhere else. But this time, no pulse ensues, & the orchestra sags back into portamenti & fractured pairs of notes in the winds, & even a frantic effort from the piano can’t prevent it from dissolving back into the spare atmosphere with which the movement began.

Nørgård marks the third & final movement ‘Allegro’, but this seems more & more aspirational as it unfolds. The start is emphatically bouncy, jaunty even, replete with clarinet slides & wild brass unisons, & for a while the textures become what one might call ‘faberian’, hectic but directionless, before a melodic sense starts to grow but is swiftly overpowered by the toms. Proceedings are halted, & now things become very strange, entering a dream-like episode focussing on the strings (the toms remain in the background). Again the piece halts, & when it continues the orchestra feels more nebulous than ever, at something of a distance. The music peters out, surviving only in drawn-out woodwind notes; slides creep in, & briefly there’s an earnest passage of highly lyrical material from the strings, exploring their higher reaches. This lyrical tone spreads into the wind & brass (by now the instruction ‘Allegro’ seems impossibly far away) whereupon a curious little hiccup brings the Symphony to an end.

Part of what confounded listeners last time around was Nørgård’s predilection for superimposing seemingly conflicting moods on top of each other, & while his Symphony No. 7 does this too, the overall sense of clarity seems very much stronger, despite the lack of (or, indeed, the need for) a narrative sense of direction. This might be due to a combination of the richness & softness of Nørgård’s writing, which is especially pronounced in this piece; but regardless, his Symphony No. 7 is an outstanding achievement, beautiful & bewildering in equal measure.

Per Nørgård – Symphony No. 7 (UK Première)

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