I just recently discovered Langgaard, and I like his music. No! I love his music!
Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) was a Danish composer who had the misfortune to be born Danish during the lifetime of Carl Nielsen. The only child of musician parents, Langgaard exhibited considerable talent at an early age. His natural musical bent tended toward German influences of Richards Wagner and Strauss and late Romanticism in general. This did not go down well in Denmark where nationalism was undergoing a rebirth, where tastes were trending toward Modernism and where Nielsen reigned as composer-supreme. Add on Langgaard’s appearance (he was short and unattractive) and character (eccentric). The result was the poor man suffered much neglect during his lifetime and died in obscurity as church organist in a small, far-flung provincial town. But he was a true artist and composed prolifically throughout his 59-year life.
Langgaard wrote sixteen symphonies, No. 1 composed when he was 19 and No. 16 at 58, one year before his death. None are composed in classic four-movement style, but are characteristic of a composer who was creating to please himself alone. Since I am not yet familiar with all of the symphonies, I won’t go into all the eccentric sidetracks where his creativity led him.
The most prolific period of his life was roughly from 1915 to 1925. All three symphonies of this recording were composed during this period. Well, that’s not quite true. Symphony No. 5, the original version, was composed in 1917-18 and then extensively revised in 1931 to the point of being almost a new composition while sharing some thematic material with the earlier work. It is this latter, second version that is recorded here, but more on this shortly.
Symphony No. 4 “Fall of the Leaves” (1916) is essentially in one continuous movement but with 13 composer-designated sections, each with its own descriptive title. In this Symphony Langgaard emerges with a mature style which he pursues, more or less, for the rest of his life. His sense of musical development is for the first time uniquely his own. While this may bother some classicists, I find it brings freshness and a sense of surprise to the music. The major themes are broad, appealing and very lyrical. He inventively utilizes this material well and eloquently expresses many moods and feelings. This Symphony, especially, is compared to Sibelius; but I find the resemblance to be superficial. Rather, the similarity stems from both composers’ musical descriptions of their respective landscapes and natural forces.
The aforementioned Symphony No. 5 “Nature of the Steppe,” second version, is likewise in one continuous movement with four designated sections, plus a tacked-on fifth section the inclusion of which totally mystifies me. Oh, well; that’s Langgaard being eccentric. The first four sections provide a very satisfying whole, however. Langgaard was apparently depicting his idea of the Russian Steppes, complete with folk melodies and dances; but the Symphony strikes me as being very Nordic. The robustness and dance-like quality of the music is an absolute joy to hear. I’m not familiar yet with the first version of the Symphony and understand it is considered to be superior to the revision. Still, I find much appeal in the work.
Symphony No. 6 “Heavens Asunder” (1919-1920) falls in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Langgaard’s technique had expanded to the point where he could undertake an ambitious work depicting the eternal struggle of Good versus Evil, the result of which had just devastated Europe. The consequent music is dense, discordant at times and a challenge to the listener; but repeated hearings bring many rewards. It is in this work that Langgaard reveals his most original musical vision, the quality that seems so prescient of things to come later in the century. And this Symphony did indeed lead to his taking up the composition of his phenomenal opera “Antikrist.” Several themes even transit into the opera, as well. The major texture of the Symphony is fugal. Densities pile upon densities until the long-held final chord with full brass orations, at times clashing and then harmonizing. That final chord reminds me of Bruckner, another organist/composer, trying to have his final cadences tower over earlier climaxes while in effect dragging the music to a halt without pushing it over the top to that really satisfying resolution. But what a sonic wonder that final chord is!
This Chandos album is in every way up to their superb standards. The recorded sound is warm and unctuous, feeling like there is no limit to the open space around the orchestral stage. Neeme Jarvi conducts the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in standard-setting performances. All seems idiomatic and natural to the spirit of the music. The string choir, especially, stands out with a warm, fat, richly expressive tone. The woodwinds also do some amazing things, especially in the 4th Symphony where they are often called on to transit from dark to light. The brass are pretty glorious, too. The tuba’s entrance at the beginning of the 5th Symphony gives me chicken-skin every time, and that final chord of the 6th is truly dazzling.
If you like good, substantial and at times inspired orchestral music, I highly recommend this recording. There is much here you will enjoy. If you are new to Langgaard’s music this CD is a good entry-point.
Submitted on 03/28/09 by Jerre Tanner