Prom 19: Langgaard, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prom 19: Langgaard, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky Daniel Müller-Schott (cello), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London 28.7.2012 (CC)

Rued Langgaard (1893-1952):  Symphony No. 11, “Ixion”
Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (b. 1932):  Incontri
Shostakovich:  Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat, Op. 107
Tchaikovsky : Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, ‘Pathétique’

It was, perhaps, no surprise that Danish music was celebrated in the earlier stages of this Prom, given Thomas Dausgaard’s dedication to the music of his homeland. In fact, Dausgaard has recorded Langgaard’s Eleventh Symphony for DaCapo with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra (review). That recording is coupled with Symphonies Nos. 9 and 10 and is also available for free listening on Spotify. Rued Langgaard is described in Calum MacDonald’s excellent booklet biography as an “ecstatic Romantic” and “idiosyncratically religious”. The Eleventh Symphony is subtitled ‘Ixion’, which refers to the Greek mythological character who was bound to an eternally rolling flaming wheel. Apparently King Sisyphus was also part of the inspiration, he who was condemned to roll a boulder to the apex of a mountain then watch it roll down again.

The Eleventh Symphony, here receiving its UK première, lasts a mere five minutes. There is a sort of American glitziness to the scoring (emphasized particularly in this Albert Hall account, in comparison with Dausgaard’s recording). Colours are hyper-bright. The theme we hear at the outset just keeps coming back (hence the image of the flaming wheel). At the front of the orchestra was a quartet of tubas, who at one point underpin the swirling orchestra behind them most effectively. It is a fascinating, individual score and it certainly sounded like the BBCSO was having a ball in this (surely) unfamiliar territory.

Another Dane, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (born 1932, and therefore an exact contemporary of Per Nørgård) provided the material for the second UK première of the evening. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen is aesthetically linked to composers such as Cage and Feldman. He sets up various strata that operate independently, linked by their sonic proximity. Interested readers should note that the Kronos Quartet has released a disc of his music on which Dausgaard conducts the Danish Radio Orchestra in the Concerto grosso (review). Incontri (2010)lasts around a quarter of an hour and is scored for large orchestra; the composer memorably refers to it as “jungle baroque”. The music is highly gestural, and includes sudden tonal “openings” as well as calling upon brass registral extremes (tension-heighteners, in effect) and including a remarkable percussion cadenza. There is no doubting the composer’s modernist stance, and he takes little account of listeners’ capabilities as he stockpiles the number of sound events occurring simultaneously. Sound onslaughts at high decibel level are not climaxes, more extended plateaux. All credit to the players of the BBCSO, who threw themselves into this complex piece and emerged triumphant.

Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto seemed curiously understated by the talented Daniel Müller-Schott. This was perfectly in keeping, therefore, with Müller-Schott’s naturally burnished sound, if not entirely with Shostakovich’s conception. Dausgaard accompanied with real skill, although – perhaps in response to his soloist – the orchestra sounded a little under-powered. Nicholas Korth was the intrepid horn player (uncredited except as part of the orchestral listing at the back of the programme) and he, at least, didn’t hold back: the duet between horn and cello could have found Müller-Schott on more gritty form. Unsurprisingly, it was the slow movement that brought the best of Müller-Schott’s playing, his high register singing beautifully, and his cadenza, with its ruminative purity of line, held the Albert Hall’s large audience in silence. Tremendously rustic woodwind led in the dancing finale. Overall, this was an interesting, if somewhat one-dimensional take on the concerto by Müller-Schott.

After the interval, Dausgaard led a most involving Tchaikovsky ‘Pathétique’. Fearlessly, he began the performance without waiting for the audience to settle down. The double-basses were properly near-inaudible, and Dausgaard made the pauses suitably pregnant. Pregnant things are apt to give birth, of course, and the offspring this time were the chiming noises mobile phones make when they are being turned off! That was a pity, as this was the birth of a fine performance, with strings articulating marvelously at speed; the second subject of the first movement was beautifully shaded. Occasionally one was reminded that this is the orchestra to which Günter Wand was linked in so many fine performances of mainstream repertoire (a Schubert Eighth at the Festival Hall sticks most resolutely in my memory, but there was magisterial, magnificent Bruckner, too). That Dausgaard can inspire his players to touch upon this history in our memory banks is praise indeed. His reading had a palpable sense of flow; in fact everything about his reading oozed intelligence. The second movement was cheekily phrased yet cogently paced and structured; the third was full of dramatic strokes. Alas, the audience fell for that ending again; they applauded – and cheered – after the third movement before a strong gesture from Dausgaard silenced them. The finale was shot through with a fateful inevitability. All credit to the brass (beautifully creamy trombones and tuba), but the real credit goes to Dausgaard and his evident rapport with the BBCSO. May he often return.

Colin Clarke