Wednesday 13 February 2013

Songs by Per Nørgård in an excellent new release from Dacapo

The Danish composer Per Nørgård (b.1932) was born in Gentofte, Denmark. His father, born into a working class family in Esbjerg, started as an apprentice shop assistant, later opening a drapers' in Copenhagen. Per Nørgård studied with Vagn Holmboe at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, and subsequently with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. His early influences were Sibelius, Nielsen and Vagn Holmboe.

In the 1960s, Nørgård began exploring the modernist techniques of central Europe, eventually developing a serial compositional system based on the "infinity series". The infinity series is a series of numbers, therefore has to be called a serial technique, but Nørgård uses it to create a melodic line, but not at the same time to control rhythmical and dynamic aspects as used in Central European serialism.

He used this method in his Second and Third Symphonies and other works of the late 1960s and 1970s. It was his interest in the Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli    that inspired many of Nørgård's works, including the 4th symphony, the opera Det Guddommelige Tivoli and Papalagi for solo guitar.

Nørgård has composed works in most genres including six operas, two ballets, eight symphonies and other pieces for orchestra, several concertos, choral and vocal works, many chamber works including ten string quartets and several solo instrumental works. Nørgård’s eighth symphony was premiered on 19 September 2012 in the Helsinki Music Centre, Finland, by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds.

Dacapo Records have just released a new recording of songs by Nørgård with the  mezzo soprano, Helene Gjerris  and an instrumental ensemble directed by Casper Schreiber comprising of Ulla Miilmann (flute), Johannes Søe Hansen (violin), Lotte Wallevik (viola) Toke Møldrup (cello), Jesper Lutzhøft (guitar), Tine Rehling (harp) Anne Marie Abildskov (piano) and Gert Sørensen (percussion).

The first settings are Two recitatives Op.16 (1955-56) for alto with obbligato solo cello settings of verses by Par Lagerkvist. Jag lyssnar till vinden (I listen to the wind) opens with the solo cello in a plangent melody. When alto, Helene Gjerris enters the raw atmosphere has already been established. She has a really fine melodic voice so this chilled song never sounds astringent. The cello and alto are hushed in Gammal Genius (Old Genius) where occasionally Gjerris verges on sprechgesang. These two settings are wonderful in their austere brilliance.

Nørgård sets Ranier Maria Rilke in his Entwichlunger (1986) two songs for alto, flute, guitar, percussion and cello.  In Kindheit (Childhood) the alto sings alone before a brief rumble of timpani points up the words ‘Still we recall them – maybe in a rain shower’. The other instruments enter at the words ‘then we lived lives like theirs’. This is a bleak, lonely setting of Rilke. The instrumental ensemble accompanies Gjerris from the beginning in Die Genesende (The convalescent). The precision of the instrumental ensemble is terrific in this wistful, sad setting. Helene Gjerris gives an amazing performance and there are so many little points made by instruments and voice.

Plutonian Ode (1980-84) a recitative and aria for soprano and cello is quite a different proposition. A setting of words by Allen Ginsberg, it is described as a threnody to plutonium with all its possibilities for destruction yet set against the human spirit with its ability to create ‘connections and meaning’. It is an intensely angry work in three parts. The first Recitation (Introduction) is spoken by Gjerris as is Recitation right up to the words ‘…blast of Disillusion?’ when she breaks into song after becoming increasingly vehement. From here until the end of this part, Gjerris moves in and out of song until at ‘Sophia’s reflection glittering thoughtful galaxies’ the song receives some exquisite singing. The final line is nevertheless spoken. When the cello enters in Aria, Toke Møldrup makes some particularly fine sounds. The words are rapid, sung with increasing passion and anger, almost too much to take. At the final words ‘oh doomed plutonium’ Gjerris’ voice is hushed.

This setting makes for a tough and unsettling experience but there can be no doubt of the integrity, passion and anger of this work.

Nørgård’s Trois Chansons de L’Amour Le Poésie (1967) arrangées pour voix d’alto et flûte en sol commences with Le sommeil (Sleep) which makes for an inspired song setting to follow the rigours of Plutonian Ode. There is a suitably drifting, ethereal feel to the song. The halting, faltering Les corbeaux (The Raven) is a masterly setting evoking ravens scouring the countryside, whilst La Terre (The Earth) is more passionate with a subtle flute accompaniment that adds just the right amount of colour and emphasis to the sung words, a setting of Paul Éluard.

Three Love songs (1963-65 rev. 2010) for mezzo-soprano, flute, percussion, harp, piano, violin, viola and cello starts with the larger instrumental ensemble directed by Casper Schreiber in a setting of words by Arthur Rimbaud.  In L’étoile a pleuré rose (The Star has wept Pink) the flute again has an important role in accompanying the alto in this finely drawn setting. Helene Gjerris sings sensitively, bringing out every little aspect of this setting. Again there is such imaginative instrumental writing. The climaxes are truly stunning with the alto’s range and flexibility truly impressive. After an instrumental opening Gjerris enters in a stirring Wie soll ich meine Seele halten (How shall I keep my soul) with some lovely flute decorations. With Opfer (Sacrifice) Nørgård manages to make the listener feel slightly off balance with his writing thereby creating a strange atmosphere, concluding ominously.

Day and Night (1982) are two short songs for low voice and piano with cello (ad lib) and are settings of Ted Hughes and William Shakespeare. A Kill is a spiky piece with Nørgård allowing sprechgesang to seep out of the fragmentary writing where the words fragment across phrases. Silver-sweet Sound is a brief setting of Shakespeare with inspired cello and piano accompaniment.

The combination of flute and strings provides a fine setting of verse by Jess Ornsbo, Solen Så Jeg (I Saw the Sun) (1953 rev. 2010), against which Helene Gjerris sings ‘I saw the sun, thought nothing was any longer mind, human. After us no one comes.’

Sånger Från Aftonland (Songs from Evening Land) Op.17 (1956) for alto, flute, violin, viola, cello and harp has a beautiful instrumental opening to Part I again showing Nørgård’s ear for fine instrumental sounds. As Helene Gjerris enters the setting of Allt är så fjärran idag (Everything is so strangely far away today) we are already far into the atmosphere of this lovely song. She nevertheless adds the final texture, blending beautifully with the instruments, full of expressiveness. This song is a gem. Du människa som står vid stranden av mig (Oh human, you who stand upon my shore) is another exquisite setting with an instrumental opening with harp flourishes before the alto enters. There are so many little textures to add to the atmosphere. In Det är om aftonen man bryter upp (It is at evening that we depart) Per Nørgård again manages such a perfect setting, every little instrumental touch adds to the alto’s superb voice.

Part II of Sånger Från Aftonland has a dominant cello part in the instrumental Preludio that effectively divides Parts I and II. It is an impassioned section displaying some of the best of Nørgård’s instrumental writing.  A livelier Nu är det sommarmorgon (Now it is summer morning) raises the mood with delicate harp phrases adding to the instrumental accompaniment. Gjerris slows at the words ‘Far off are cold stars, far off is boundless space’ becoming slightly thoughtful but she concludes with more warmth. There is a wistful, searching feel to the opening of Tacka vill jag (I will thank) before the alto joins with the words ‘I will thank the flowers and the clouds.’ This is a gorgeously lovely setting with the alto voice so much part of the whole, Gjerris singing with such conviction and understanding.

Part III of Sånger Från Aftonland consists of just one song, the return of Det är om aftonen man bryter upp (It is at evening that we depart) giving fine a balance between melancholy and wonder in the final part of this beautiful song cycle.

Schlafen Gehen, Schmerz Und Not (Off to Sleep, pain and Trouble) (2012) for vocals and percussion is an arrangement of an earlier work, Abendlied, from 1980. Helene Gjerris has her voice dubbed to sing the four parts of  this work, which has the ‘voices’ and percussion strangely distant and giving an ethereal conclusion to this remarkable collection of songs.

Helene Gjerris sings with great control, flexibility and perception. These are remarkable settings, most are very beautiful; just the Plutonian Ode is taxing in its passion and anger. The songs are finely recorded and there are interesting notes on the composer and the music, as well as full texts and translations. This is an excellent new release.

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