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 Recording of the Week  Sakari Oramo conducts symphonies by Per Nørgård

A new discovery for me this week, as I have been listening to a disc of two symphonies by the Danish composer, Per Nørgård, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and conducted by Sakari Oramo.

Sakari Oramo
Sakari Oramo

Nørgård, who will turn 82 next month, is a prolific composer, with numerous concertos, several operas, and eight symphonies to his name. Stylistically, he was initially influenced mostly by composers such as Sibelius and Nielsen, as well as his teacher at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, Vagn Holmboe. Some of those early influences can definitely be heard in his Symphony No. 1, subtitled “Sinfonia austera”, written between 1953 and 1955; the very opening, with its use of timpani and bass clarinet, is reminiscent of the beginning of Sibelius's First Symphony, and later on in the first movement, some of the counterpoint and running viola semiquavers very much put me in mind of the Fifth Symphony by Nielsen.

It's possibly the second movement that can most justify the “austere” subtitle, beginning as it does with some bleak woodwind writing, whereas the symphony itself ends in a blaze of brassy glory. It's all fantastically played of course, and the end of the first movement is quite enchanting: after the cataclysmic climax a couple of minutes before the end, it all begins to wind down, and it finishes with a wonderful sense of calm, and a marvellous shimmer from the Vienna strings.

The second symphony on this disc is his Symphony No 8, written just three years ago (in fact this is the world première recording). In terms of its sound world it could hardly be more different to the first symphony, seeming to me much more impressionist in style. It opens with what Nørgård has termed “sculptural rising and falling scales”, which are meant to call to mind, he says, spirals or the stepped pyramids of Mesopotamia.

I can sort of see what he means: the music twists and whirls, nowhere more so than the end of the symphony, where he uses incessantly repeated notes in the woodwind and strings to hypnotic effect, only for this all to fade away, leaving behind a simple held chord for horns and upper strings. It's a very effective end to a thrilling symphony.

What struck me most about the piece was that, even with such a large orchestra at his disposal, he often pares everything right down to focus on just a few instruments rather in the fashion of chamber music. One of my favourite moments is an extraordinary section towards the end of the first movement, where the piano, harp, celeste, vibraphone, and glockenspiel are each asked to play their material independently of the main tempo. On top of this, a solo violin eventually enters with a rising quarter-tone scale. The effect that all of this creates is quite magical, and reminded me of the sound of a Javanese gamelan. The whole piece glistens and sparkles: this is partly due to the large array of percussion that Nørgård employs, with instruments including antique cymbals, Thai gongs, wind chimes, an oil drum, and chimes of various sorts.

I can't imagine these symphonies were previously part of the Vienna Philharmonic's standard repertoire, and yet their collective virtuosity is so great that they sound immediately convincing, and they take to this music with apparently effortless ease. It's fascinating to hear the difference in style by having two such disparate works on the same disc. As I mentioned at the start, I was not at all familiar with any of Nørgård's music, but it's been a pleasure to discover these pieces, and it's certainly made me want to hear more of his music.

Per Nørgård: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 8

Vienna Philharmonic, Sakari Oramo

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC