The UK Premiere of Per Nørgård’s Third Symphony is an Unforgettable Experience.

22/08/2018

BBC PROM 51 – Wagner, R. Strauss, Nørgård: Malin Byström (soprano), London Voices; National Youth Chamber Choir of Great Britain, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 20.8.2018. (CC)

Thomas Dausgaard (c) Thomas Grøndahl

Thomas Dausgaard (c) Thomas Grøndahl

Wagner – Parsifal, Act I, Prelude
R. Strauss – Four Last Songs
Per Nørgård – Symphony No. 3 (1972-75, UK premiere)

This was one of the finest Proms of the season, and all because of its second half. Per Nørgård’s 50-minute Third Symphony received – amazingly – its UK premiere, despite its composition date of 1972-75. With the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra playing as I, for one, have never heard them play before, this was without doubt a Proms season highlight; if not the season highlight.

First, though, the ascent to Everest, and Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Parsifal, music that glows internally and externally. This was a performance though, that never drew the listeners into the secret, crumbling, pained world of Monsalvat, despite its catalogue of niceties: the broad shaping of the opening theme, the well-balanced brass, the beautifully blended woodwind, the nobility of the cello and horn doubling. The occasionally splattered chord was not the problem; non-congruence with Wagner’s highly individual world was.

The Swedish soprano Malin Byström had impressed in her assumption of the role of Hélène in Verdi’s Les Vêpres siciliennes at Covent Garden in October 2017; she was in fine fettle here too, while sporting a strikingly purple dress. The first song, ‘Frühling’ (Spring) revealed she has the low notes for Strauss’s magnificent autumnal masterpiece as well as the lyrical ability. In ‘September’, singer and orchestra came together magnificently, with Dausgaard emphasising the gossamer lightness of Strauss’s writing (as he did in the tender strings of ‘Beim Schlafengehen’). While at the line ‘Sommer tropft Blatt und Blatt’ she did not blossom like some singers, this all seemed part of the interior interpretation (this movement ending with a beautifully heartfelt horn solo). A special word for the leader, Laura Samuel, who delivered delicious solos in both ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ and ‘Im Abendrot’.

There is no doubt that things moved up a notch for the Strauss from the Wagner. Thence to Everest, Nørgård’s Third Symphony, a behemoth of a piece, craggily uncompromising and clearly a work of utter genius. Although Andrew Mellor’s programme note pointed out the connections with Sibelius in terms of organic unfolding, the piece seems to wish to take in the world, much in the manner of Mahler, combining this with a Sibelian sense of flow. Its second and final movement includes a choral section on Ave Maris stella, a setting of Rilke (‘Singe die Gärten, mein Herz, die du nicht kennst’) and a setting of Rückert (‘Du bist die Ruh’, this last complete with Schubert quote).

The work makes use of Nørgård’s Infinity Series. I’m not sure the programme booklet explained this too well: ‘an integer sequence that can be described as an infinite constellation of predetermined notes, mapped according to a mathematical pattern’. ‘Discovered’ by Nørgård in 1959, the Infinity Series’ characteristic seems to be ever-expanding intervals; see this link for a more cogent explanation with music examples or, for the mathematically-inclined reader, this link from the ever-popular On-Line Encyclopaedia of Integer Sequences. An article from the journal Music and Mathematics, entitled Notes and Note-Pairs in Nørgård’s Infinity Series, might satisfy the mathematically-obsessed; its promise to consider ‘to what extent the Infinity Series is unique’ does sound interesting, though.

The result is that the music sounds massively organised; the scoring gives it an earthy, in fact chthonic, feel; a Nordic Birtwistle, perhaps. There is little (think tending towards zero) concession to ease of listening here, something much of the audience for the first half must have known, given that the hall was half empty post-interval. The fabulously intense opening, brass blowing through their instruments so only breath sounds emerge, coupled with glacial woodwind and percussion, led onwards towards a seamless entry for the organ. The link to the Sibelian sense of flow was easily discernible (albeit with a far more cutting-edge harmonic palette). No matter how dense the sound from the huge orchestra, nothing was blurred or lost, a testament not only to the composer’s expert scoring but also to the performers, for this was the BBC SSO transformed. Throughout the 50-minute span there was not one slip in concentration. The contributions from the chorus in the second movement – initially integrated into the orchestral texture in a way surely unequalled elsewhere, then blossoming out into an almost jazzy ‘Ave maris stella’ which itself morphed beautifully into the Rilke setting – were magnificently done. The two choruses (London Voices and the National Youth Chamber Choir of Great Britain) melded beautifully; hints of the ritualism of the close of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms towards the close of Nørgård’s symphony seemed perfectly apposite for a composition of such ambitions.

Dausgaard conducted the first UK performance of Nørgård’s Sixth Symphony, ‘At the End of the Day’, with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra at the Proms in 2002 (the first UK performance of the Seventh took place during the 2012 Proms with the BBC Philharmonic under John Storgårds). Let’s hope for more Nørgård in next year’s Proms schedule. It was a privilege to see the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on such impeccably disciplined form, relishing every challenge; a privilege also to see the composer present at this performance, embraced at his seat at the performance’s close by Dausgaard. This performance of Nørgård’s Third was, quite simply, an unforgettable experience.

Colin Clarke

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