Rued Langgaard: Symphony 1 & Piano Music

Two fabulous discs, both stunningly recorded and played. Together, they make a great introduction to the music of Rued Langgaard

Rued Langgaard: Symphony 1 & Piano Music

Two discs today, ane we’ll start with Rued Langgaard's First Symphony, “Seaside Pastorals”. Here is an introduction by the conductor of the disc, Sakari Oramo, and I'll be quoting from the video as we go along:

Oramo refers, memorably, to the ”smell of sea air in this music which comes from the use of instruments, as and the key of B minor which has a slaightly salty feel, to me at least.”

Langaard scores for large orchestra, wit a section of eight horns  (including Wagner tubas). “They make a lot of noise, I can tell you,” says Oramo. But the whole piece is predicated on the idea of the orchestra as collective. there are solos, but interestingly Langgaard often writes small solos for non-principals: third trumpet, third oboe, third clarinet and so on. His First Symphony was premiered by the Berliner Philharmoniker (it was rejected in both Copenhagen and Stockholm) on April 10, 1913 under Max Fiedler, a performance green-ligted by none other than the great Artur Nikisch. This is the World Premiere recording of the 2010 Critical Edition of the score.

The symphony’s subtitle, “Cliffside Pastorals,” refers to the mountainous peninsula  Kullen (in southern Sweden, but it can be seen from the Danish coast).

The 20-minute first movement is markedly swashbuckling - think Richard Strauss in Alpensinfonie mode. Langgaard started the piece when he was 13, finished when 17, and there is a boundless enthusiasm to the music, or as Oramo puts it, and “incredible surging pathos” coupled with an “idealistic view ...  there is a bit too much of everything, but what he put in the sauce is actally really tasty”. A lovely way to put it and with the Berliner Philharmoniker with Oramo at the helm, it sounds like they are painting a brave new world, forging forth fearlessly as Langgaard’s imagination strides unstoppably. Moments of repose are few and far between (and all the more welcome for that!). This is the programmatic basis of the first movement:

At the foot of the mountain roars the surf against the rocks. The human soul strives out over the surf to see the dawn and the promised land.

This movement is entitled, “Surf and Glimpses of the Sun” (Brændinger og Solglimt):

The sheer fragility of scoring (and of performance here!) of the second movement is breathtaking. Entitled “Mountain Flowers” (Fjeldblomster) it is an idyllic pastoral, again with a programmatic note:

The ascent begins. – The storm drops. – The mountain forest provides shelter, while the moun- tain’s flowers tremble slightly
in a weak breeze which ghostly sweeps through the tops of the fir trees.

There are some some wonderful opportunities for clarinets and horns to shine:

The third movement is a reminiscence of an ancient saga. Initially entitled  “Voices  from Days of the Past,” it was later retitled as “Legend”. It is short but powerful. Oramo calls it “very dramatic, very disturbing,” not to mention “odd”:

Then comes “Opad Fjeldet” (Mountain Ascent”), where a feeling of brisk elation fills the air.

Away with dreams! Up the mountain! The wished-for goal, the mountain summit, beckons from a distance!

The music is aspirational and thrusting, with an upward gesture for lower string about half way through that really does sound like Richard Strauss:

For the last movement, “Livsmod” (Courage), the elements come together, leaving a variegated soundscape:

A cooling breeze sweeps through the mountain top. The view with the wide horizon, the high arching sky, and the distant blue sea with its white crests of foam fill the heart with new courage

This finale returns to the outsized emotions of the first movement. Strauss is once more present, and I for one hear more Zemlinsky here, too.

The symphony surely could not ask for a finer performance. Recorded over three days of live performances (16-18 of June, 2022), the standard of playing is impeccable - as is the sound.

Rued Langgaard enjoyed the piano, penning over 50 works that span his development as a composer. His piano music is served here by the perfect interpreter. Pianist Berit Johansen Tange graduated from the Royal Danish Academy of Music with Anne Øland and made her debut from the chamber music class in 2000. She has worked especially intensively with Langgaard’s music; in addition to this series of piano discs, together with violinist Gunvor Sihm, she has recorded all of Langgaard's works for violin and piano over three discs. In addition, for many years, Tange has been a regular concert performer at the annual Rued Langgaard Festival, and has actively worked to spread awareness of his music, including via  masterclasses and a Langgaard competition for students launched in 2021, as well as solo performances at Langgaard presentations in both Vienna and Berlin. She is also co-editor of the music edition of Langgaard's complete works for piano, published in 2018 by Edition Wilhelm Hansen.

This is the fourth volume of Berit Johansen Tange’s survey of Langgaard’s piano music. It begins with the positively Schumannesque miniatures Blomstervignetter (Flower Vignettes, 1913). Langgaard had a great love of flowers, and one can sense that affection in his writing. Try the expressive. third piece, “Forglemmigej” (Forget-me-not) and the capricious final “Tusindfryd” - Tange’s fingerwork in the latter is brilliant, born of real finger strength but delivered with the lightest of touches::

Full 30+ years later came the Piano Sonata No. 2 (1934-41/45), subtitled “Ex est” (it is over); earlier, it had been named “Helsingborg,” a reference to a Swedish town visited frequently by the composer. In the first movement, Langgaard quotes from his own song Vergeblich (In Vain, written in 1913), this one:

The wistful nature of the music is due to an unhappy love affair - over 20 years later that relationship haunted him still, and one can detect qualities of regret and wistfulness in the music, perhaps, as well as the fire of the movement indicator of the first movement, “Presto fiero”:

The second movement, Allegro strepitoso (fast and boisterously), begins for all the World like a piano piece by Brahms, his Op. 118/1 (the link takes you to a YouTube performace from 1981 by Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich, which has the advantage of a scrolling score). The music soon takes of on its own Langgaardian trajectory Esben Tange’s superb booklet notes point out a similarity in the musical grotesqueries here to Langgaard’s opera, Antikrist:

The third movement (Lento anagogico) was composed in 1945, after Langgaard was forced to recompose the first three movements (the score was not returned to hm after it was used in an art competition connected to the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936!).  The indication “anagogico” refers to the ascent of a mystical characrer to the hereafter. There is certainly a hymnic quality about this most beautiful movement, and Tange’s richness of tone is something to relish in and of itself!. Listen out for what I, at least, hear as a pealing of bells at around five minutes in:

The finale proper (an Allegro vivace festivo, after a slow Lento tranquillo opening) once again has echoes of Brahms in its rich, bass-led writing. The music has an almost child-like sense of joy and optimism. Tange’s touch is light and her understanding complete. A fabulous performance of a wonderful piece.

The Sarabande that follows was composed with Langgaard was just 12, and is charming and well-writen.aHe was clearly s precocious talent, and the piece is performed with great charm by Range; the “family albumleaf” (Stambogsblad) that follows, wrtten only three years later, in 1909, was composed while Langgaard was mainly occupied with composing his First Symphony (featured in the first part of this post). The harmonies do sound very Wagner-influenced, as Esben Tange’s notes rightly point out:

Originally intended as part of Langgaard’s First Piano Sonata, the Scherzo  included here has some decidedly Chopinesque elements to it. Written in 1925, it comes after something of a compositional change in which the boundary-destroying earlier works ceded to a new sense of Romanticism:

Arguably the most fascinating piece on this disc is Flannekamrene (The Chambers of Flames, 1930-37), its title a reference to the flickering gaslights of Copenhagen that Langgaard knew in his childhood. The piece links that image to part of the scenery of Antikrist, the “Chambers of Flames,” where souls are burned (as in Dante’s Divine Comedy). Some of the music reminds me of Scriabin in mystical mode; This is a vrituoso piece, and there is certainly a Lisztian element (or maybe elements - there are some darker passages that point more towards late Liszt than Scriabin). It is an amazing amalgam of influences meeting originality all via the conduit of Hades itself:

The simply-named Expression was inspired by Elijah from the Christian Bible’s Old testament. Langgaard depicts storm, earthquake and fire before presenting an extended hymn (within which quietude the Christian God lives).

Another set of Flower Vignettes closes the disc. We had Book I at the outset; here is Book II, written in 1951 (as opposed to Book I’s 1913, if you remember), we have a Langgaard Rückblick, as the same sense of Romantic musing is present  The booklet notes refer to “resignation bathed in beauty,” something heard particularly in the first piece, “Rødtjørn”.

Based on the same flowers and indeed including the themes as the first set, this was to be Langaard’s last substantive work. Interestingly, this time round, the composer omitted tempo, dynamic and phrasing in the scores. The poignant end of the final “Daisy” seems highly sympbolic: the music simply evaporates:

Two fabulous discs, both stunningly recorded and played. Together, they make a great introduction to the music of Rued Langgaard.