It’s high time i got back to appraising some of the more interesting new releases. No fewer than three contemporary pieces bearing the title ‘symphony’ were performed at this year’s Proms, and coincidentally quite a few of the CDs i’ve been sent have also featured 20th and 21st century symphonies. What constitutes a ‘symphony’ these days is a good question, one that these six albums don’t so much answer as offer an assortment of interpretations of what it might mean.
For Danish-born, Germany-based composer Paul von Klenau, whose Symphony No. 9, composed in 1945, is the oldest in this particular collection, it seems to be all about teutonic scale and grandeur. A choral symphony in eight movements lasting around 90 minutes, the work (which was unknown until 2001, and unperformed until two years ago), seeks to meld the Latin Requiem into an enlarged symphonic form. Even making allowances for the passage of time, had the symphony been performed in 1945 one can only imagine it would even then have struck something of an anachronistic tone. The movements involving the choir enter a full-on ‘oratorio mode’, articulating a highly dramatic episodic treatment of the text, with Verdi-esque levels of hysteria. They’re not without moments of striking power, but too often von Klenau swallows them up in mere fortissimo. His predilection for counterpoint militates against this in several places (particularly the impressive canonic build-up in the third movement and fugal treatment of the choir in the fourth), but von Klenau’s deeper purpose—lamenting the dead and advocating peace—has a tendency to break one’s engagement due to its level of enthusiasm, which makes it feel like propaganda. (Considering it was written during the climactic final months of World War II, it’s tempting to hear the work as a response to that, but von Klenau’s relationship with Nazi ideology is apparently somewhat conflicted.)
As the work progresses there are some touching episodes; the impassioned lyricism of the lovely sixth movement displays an interesting mode of behaviour, driven on by both the pulse and heavy reiterated notes and punctuations, yet with a dance-like freedom (perhaps the high point of the symphony, it’s so convincing that von Klenau can even get away with a tierce de picardie at the end). The symphony takes on an ever more Last Night of the Proms character though, pompous marches and ever more massively overblown climaxes—far too big for its sincerity to be able to speak—which only make the overt conservative style of von Klenau’s writing sound more and more obvious, in the process lending it the air of a work all about surface and sheen rather than depth. Considering it was the composer’s last major work, it’s a real shame; today, his Symphony No. 9 seems more of a melodramatic curiosity than the cry for conciliation and concord that von Klenau seems to have been aiming for. In this new recording, conductor Michael Schønwandt just about keeps the Danish National Concert Choir and Danish National Symphony Orchestra under some sort of control, and while he certainly manages to extract the most from the work’s more restrained, telling passages, you can’t help feeling von Klenau’s music is fighting him every step of the way. [DaCapo]
Peter Maxwell Davies‘ Symphony No. 10 (his last, written in 2014 while the composer was battling to overcome leukemia) also includes a choir but is infinitely more measured. Subtitled ‘Alla ricerca di Borromini’, the work is nominally concerned with the life and work of Italian architect Francesco Borromini. Although in four movements, Max seems to be allowing the music to navigate its own spontaneous dramatic flow rather than imposing prefab structural ideas upon it. The result often strikes a strange, intriguing balance between effusion and reticence, and there are other opposites attracting too: the long opening movement, for example, begins disarmingly at a point that’s tentative yet bold, lyrical yet brooding and unsettled. Repeatedly, Max pushes the turbulent ideas forward only for them to be yanked back, fizzle out, change course, or just stop dead in their tracks. In lesser hands this might sound merely conflicted, but from Max there’s a cogent plausibility through every impromptu narrative twist. Opposites apply in the word-setting too: the ultra dry text, at times to the point of banality (calling it dry might seem perverse considering its eventual lengthy account of violent self-harm, but it really is nonetheless) is given highly dramatic treatment, Max tapping into the emotional reality of the events beneath the words describing them. The level of drama in the final movement is such that it potentially breaks the continuity of the symphony as a whole, worthy to sit alone as a powerful scena in its own right. The performance by the LSO and Chorus under Antonio Pappano is superb, Pappano making Max’s more introspective passages bespeak something of the heartbreaking fragility of its composer at the time.
The piece is placed on disc alongside another Symphony No. 10, that of Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik. At just 15 minutes’ duration, Panufnik crams in a lot, passing quickly from a brass-heavy fanfaric opening statement through a low chorale of sorts to a point where it’s become lugubrious and small. The rapidity of that trajectory belies the patience Panufnik takes with such a short duration, allowing the music oodles of time to meander, to emote, to think, with a strong sense of inner evolution. And in case that description suggests a ponderous work, it isn’t; Panufnik ramps things up (via a striking sequence of knife blow-like tutti accents) into a rapid unstoppable pulse, only then to suck all the energy out of it: the symphony’s subsequent end is fascinating, the orchestra a kind of coagulated mush, becoming ever more ghostly and ethereal. [LSO Live]
For Chinese composer Xiaogang Ye, the symphony here becomes an opportunity to celebrate the multi-faceted aspects of life and culture in the Zhou dynasty Chu state. Ye’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Chu’ (completed in 2004, revised in 2007) comprises seven movements, devoted to a mixture of places, concepts and things, combining musical elements from east and west. His compositional style occasionally brings Messiaen to mind (especially the wind writing that begins the piece), but above all demonstrates a distinct leaning to drawn-out, gently ornamented melodies, sometimes embellished and reinforced by the orchestra, elsewhere allowed to sing alone. Its lyrical inclinations are matched by an equal propensity to fortissimo fervour: the percussion episode in the second movement turns a ritual dance into a gloriously unrestrained hailstorm of blows and crashes.
Ye integrates eastern instruments into the orchestra in such a way that they become simultaneously unified yet off-kilter elements, allowing the Symphony to take changes in direction that are delightfully unpredictable. There are instances of conflict in the choices of instrumentation, and occasions where one feels the balance has gone awry, for a time undermining the music. But Ye’s command of what he’s doing is very strong; the melodic lines have a freshness that makes them feel three-dimensional (anyone thinking Chinese tunes are all pretty much the same will be fittingly challenged), the musical drama is wonderfully weird and the orchestrational nuances are weirdly wonderful. It’s impressive to encounter such extremes of brute force and delicacy handled so deftly within a single work. The recording, by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under José Serebrier, who are all clearly having the time of their lives, is paired with another work of Ye’s, his 1993 violin concerto The Last Paradise, featuring soloist Cho-Liang Lin. Much of the preceding remarks apply here too, though this work attains even more exhilarating climactic heights. [BIS]
The Danish Dacapo label has shown a long-term commitment to arguably their most well-known compositional compatriot, Per Nørgård. The composer’s third and seventh symphonies were released back in 2009, and more recently Dacapo has been working through the rest of them. The flexibility and scope of what a symphony can be is given vivid clarity in Nørgård’s highly variegated, even contrary approach to them since the completion of his first, in 1955; for Nørgård, the symphony becomes a crucible. He certainly hit the ground running with his Symphony No. 1. Don’t be misled by the subtitle, ‘Sinfonia austera’ (“austere symphony”); to an extent building on the symphonic thinking of Sibelius, the piece violently lets rip before even three minutes have elapsed. Indeed, far from austerity, the first movement is a mass of full-blooded, bellicose music (the indication “tempo moderato” being the only thing moderate about it). It’s practically an essay in onslaughts, each of which feels more overwhelming than the last due to the way Nørgård steers the music down into graceful valleys of reflection in between them. It no doubt remains Nørgård’s most immediately accessible symphony, but regardless pulls precisely no punches. Even in the central slow movement, the restrained melodic introspection (somewhat Shostakovich-like) is leaden and heavy, while the finale demonstrates intimidating tenacity, redefining the idea of a musical climax by unleashing and then maintaining dense multi-strand tuttis for minutes on end, hitting peak after peak after peak. Did i mention it’s his first symphony?
Released in 2014, this disc is especially interesting as it also includes Nørgård’s (to date) most recent symphony, No. 8, completed in 2011. Disorientation seems inevitable, and sure enough entering into the strange, gestural habitat of the Eighth Symphony it’s initially hard to believe that it’s by the same composer. However, there’s a demonstrative melodic (even romantic) streak that has clear connections to the First, although here it’s just one element among a kaleidoscopic collection. And they’re quite a vague collection too, Nørgård playing fast and loose with his own instruction “molto distinto”, initiating eruptions of generally ambiguous activity. Only very gradually do they start to develop some focus, through united lines, rhythms, accents and demarcations of behaviour. Later Nørgård does the opposite, pouring more and more material into the mix such that the movement sounds as though it’s being ‘filled up’—and then he pulls the plug out, resulting in truly mesmerising plinky-plonk passagework from piano, harp and percussion. The slow movement feels uncannily referential, yet as if through a haze; oasis-like, despite some ephemeral instability (perhaps something of an understatement for what is actually a huge, sudden eruption), the emphasis is on sensuality, too unsettled to be peaceful but betraying an omnipresent tendency to lushness. The final movement moves from extremely fast tapping rim shots through a landscape of constantly shifting ideas, Nørgård thwarting the ear’s efforts to grab each one briefly as it passes. As though caught in a fantastical vision—the instruction is “lento visionario”—its fleeting sounds (and, by implication, sights and smells) neither repel nor bore despite the sense of disorientation; somehow Nørgård keeps it constantly engaging. Conducted by Sakari Oramo, the Vienna Philharmonic play here as though it’s the last thing they’re ever going to do (surely the best way to play); both the music and the performances are simply dazzling. [DaCapo]
This year has seen Dacapo release two further discs of Nørgård’s symphonies, both featuring the Oslo Philharmonic conducted by John Storgårds. Dating from 1970, Symphony No. 2 sets itself apart from the rest in the way that, within a single 23-minute movement, one pitch-class (G) materialises and becomes the epicentre about which everything else rotates, and in relation to which it is heard. At the start, Nørgård tickles and judders it with micro-/quarter-/semitone beats, but gradually the range of interaction expands. At the same time a slow pulse starts to be felt in some quarters, while elsewhere elements appear to be floating outside this. Loud brass reports at different concentric speeds seem, if anything, only to reinforce the fundamental rather than subverting it, the symphony becoming a form of avant-garde drone music. Perhaps the key thing about the Second Symphony is how contained it is; everywhere else, anything can happen, but not here. Does that make it a slightly diminished experience? perhaps.
Symphony No. 6 on the other hand—composed nearly three decades later, and subtitled “At the End of the Day”—announces complexity immediately, its opening minutes (having descended from on high, courtesy of piccolos, high strings and a flexatone) filled with music so deliriously dense and seemingly lubricated that the ear slips and slides over its surface, unable either to gain purchase or deal with the amount of detail. Over four minutes pass before anything approximating clarity emerges, first with fanfares and then later in a weird kind of lumbering dance with very low brass pedal note embellishments(!). The slow movement is amazing, low register ambiguity and deep tendrils of melody precipitating a slow, generalised murmuration that’s kept in a convoluted state of tension, continually threatening to unleash… something. This movement is among Nørgård’s very finest symphonic music. The energetic finale is an exercise in ridiculous jauntiness, fragmenting the orchestra into umpteen descending lines (a contorted echo of the symphony’s opening moments) but with a sense of imitation everywhere, such that each player is clearly working towards the same end. Sharp staccato pin-pricks are turned to slithery glissandi, finally collapsing in a hypnotic texture of ricochets, slowly dying away. [DaCapo]
Symphony No. 4 dates from 1981 and is cast in just two movements. The first has an obsessive streak focused on the descending patterns with which it begins. This manic behaviour is tempered with dronal asides that remind one of the Second Symphony, and lengthy episodes of light, rhythmic interplay that render uncertain quite where one’s attention should be placed. Nørgård intended the work to have a yin-yang character, and so this movement, titled “Indian Rose Garden”, is answered by a contrasting one, “Chinese Witch Lake” (the titles come from a planned but never completed work by the mentally ill Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli, whose life and work had a significant impact on Nørgård from around the time of this symphony). The boisterous second movement feels rooted around a single pitch-class, and its barely-tempered level of aggression is high. This is music in a perpetual state of calamity, churning, rupturing, unable to maintain anything more substantial than the merest whiffs of gestures. Nørgård unhinges the music in a demented dance-like episode (quoting the 1930s waltz, ‘Fascination’) before a grotesque violin glissando leads to a unexpectedly wraith-like end.
Symphony No. 5 took three years to compose (completed in 1990) and is dedicated to the Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who directed the first performance. The opening is remarkable, low contrabassoon grumbles and a muted piano, strings heaving themselves upward, wild glissando flourishes and glimpses of pretty glockenspiel glitter; all within the first 30 seconds. What follows is nowhere near so bewildering, although the first movement’s weirdly tense cloud of twisting pitches makes it feel slightly inebriated, trying in vain to focus. Nørgård’s complex relationship with melody manifests itself here too: in the midst of more slabs of fearsome density, a line that sounds both bleached and also strewn with a huge quantity of disjecta membra. One senses that it’s this lyricism that lies at the movement’s heart, menaced on all sides by barely-controlled melées, huge drum rolls and impossibly shrill woodwind shrieks. All this serves as a 10-minute overture for the eccentric soundworld that ensues, nervous, fretful, populated with bizarre noises and squeaks as though from unimaginable beasts. Into this world is beamed an incongruous appearance of ‘jingle bells‘, causing the symphony to drift and separate into a host of connected but individuated ideas. The short third movement suspends the symphony so as to look close-up at some of its details, before the tension is released in an immense climax; the equally short fourth movement channels it through the makings of a passacaglia, becoming ostensibly fastidious but with instances of filigree (especially from a clarinet) complicating things. Nørgård marks the final movement ‘robusto’, and while that’s certainly the perfect word for it, it’s also one of the strangest conclusions to a symphony you’ll ever hear. Its large amounts of energy—once again, all density and detail (underpinned by percussion)—sustain for a time but eventually tire and quieten into light but definitely not playful runs. Fanfares just about audible deep within the texture, possibly trying to free themselves (and hinting at the end of the First Symphony), seem to indicate where this one is going, but instead, shrill piccolos are released, the symphony ending in the random tinklings of a mark tree. It’s a superb play on one’s expectations, engineering a powerful engagement with material that could otherwise become alienating and just downright odd. Both of these discs are extremely fine recordings; the impossible amounts of detail in these four symphonies never sound remotely muddy or unclear (except when that’s what Nørgård wants). Everything about them feels definitive. [DaCapo]