Adventurous BBC NOW Concert Fails to Rehabilitate Langgaard

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Langgaard, Korngold, Zemlinsky: Elena Urioste (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales /André de Ridder (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 18.11.2014. (PCG)

Rued Langgaard – Symphony No.7 (1925-6)
Erich Wolfgang Korngold – Violin Concerto (1946)
Alexander ZemlinskyThe Little Mermaid (1902-3)

Langgaard, comprehensively neglected during his lifetime and afterwards, wrote sixteen symphonies which have only in recent years been resurrected and recorded in his native Denmark. These recordings were greeted with decidedly lukewarm enthusiasm even by that enthusiast for Nordic music Robert Layton in the Penguin Guides, where he remarked of one disc: “The language is openly neo-romantic, which would not in itself matter were the musical invention tinged with a flicker of real distinction.” Certainly the Seventh Symphony did not give the impression of a neglected genius which one can certainly discern in others of Langgaard’s scores. The construction of the work was desultory, episodes succeeding one another without any real sense of continuity and a first movement that simply ground to a halt when it had run out of material. The tripartite structure of the second movement was also very obviously displayed, the music nearly coming to a standstill at the end of each section. The scherzo seemed like a cross between Brahms and Bruckner, but unlike these composers Langgaard left all too little room for the music to expand or develop. The opening of the finale with the odd tempo marking Fastoso allegro (might the first word be a misreading for Maestoso?) was rather more sustained in manner. We were here given the original version of the score, which Langgaard subsequently revised in 1930-32 expanding the length of some of the episodes and making an effort to rectify the structural gaps; it might have been better to have presented us with the composer’s second thoughts. As it was, despite some original touches such as the addition of a second tuba in the finale (not that it was given much to do) this well-played performance did not really make much of a case for Langgaard’s music.

Korngold’s Violin Concerto may also have been somewhat of a patchwork quilt (created from extracts from various film scores), but the composer’s sense of pacing and continuity demonstrated precisely what had been lacking in the Langgaard symphony. The densely romantic orchestration threatened in places to overwhelm the delivery of Elena Urioste’s playing, but she came through largely unscathed and was gently bruising in the lovely second movement, rhapsodic and delicate by turns as required. Her veiled delivery of the final phrases came straight from another world of mystery. The set of upbeat variations which constitute the finale was properly sparkling, although it was here that the Hollywood origins of the thematic material (from The Prince and the Pauper) was most apparent. Urioste seems to be making something of a speciality of American violin concertos – she gave us a superb reading of Barber’s concerto here last year – and one looks forward to her further excursions into this repertory.

After the interval this adventurous programme concluded with Zemlinsky’s The Little Mermaid, a work which after its initial success was allowed to lie fallow by the composer, who detached the first movement as a present to his friend Marie Pappenheim. The score was only re-assembled in 1984, and I remember hearing a broadcast of the first modern revival at that time and being mightily impressed by a symphonic ‘fantasy’ that had all the flair and panache one associates with Richard Strauss’s symphonic poems. Riccardo Chailly, who conducted that performance, subsequently recorded the work commercially; but I then found the score over-inflated in places, and although I still own the CD I haven’t listened to it for some years now. In this performance the music immediately cast its spell afresh, and Lesley Hatfield’s violin solo plangently set the scene. The grand gestures no longer seemed over-blown, but part of the quasi-operatically dramatic development of the thematic material. The themes themselves were memorable, with one that reminded me of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and another which was a sort of cross between Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kalendar Prince and Mahler’s Das klagende Lied, but were none the worse for that. The transformations in particular which the Rimsky/Mahler motif underwent were always characterful and meaningful, and elsewhere there were passages which anticipated Schoenberg in the prelude to Gürrelieder and even Bax’s Garden of Fand with its similarly maritime theme. The weight of the full body of orchestral strings could have been stronger (unusual in the case of this orchestra) but André de Ridder clearly loved the score and his enthusiasm was infectious.

This concert was described as the first in a series described as “neglected music on Scandinavian themes” – The little mermaid being of course based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen – and one looks forward with interest to further explorations in this field. It is being broadcast on Radio 3 on 5 January 2015, and is well worth looking out for.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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