The UK premiere of Langgaard's Music of the Spheres 92 years after it was composed was a weird and wonderful triumph
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If ever there had ever been a question about whether audiences should clap between movements, then just a raised right hand from conductor Thomas Dausgaard was enough to provide a packed audience with the answer: no.
Such was Dausgaard’s total command of both his players – the Danish National Symphony Orchestra – and listeners that he managed not only to orchestrate silence between movements, but between works as well, accepting applause only before intervals and encores.
But then this expansive three-hour programme that pondered space, life, death and the universe, plunging us into the depths of Rued Langgaard’s Music of the Spheres, the other-worldy weirdnesses from which I have yet to fully recover, undoubtedly required a sense of continuity between movements and quiet between works for reflection.
The Danish National Choir and Danish National Vocal Ensemble began the concert with an evocative rendering of Ligeti’s choral bagatelles Night and Morning – atmospheric settings of poems by the Hungarian Sándo Weöres that grew out of nocturnal silence before breaking brightly into day.
They were followed almost immediately by the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto Op. 35, in which the Norwegian virtuoso Henning Kraggerud made an authoritative Royal Albert Hall debut alongside the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, before encoring with his own stunning Fantasia based on a theme by Norwegian composer Ole Bull.
If Dausgaard had got the size of his audience, he wasn’t perhaps quite as well prepared for the size of the hall, which swallowed up Ligeti’s Lux aeterna – famous as the music for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – after the interval. But it was otherwise a clever choice, segueing stylistically and thematically into Danish composer Rued Langgaard’s almighty Music of the Spheres.
And what music this is. Completed in 1918 yet never before performed in the UK, it comprises of one 35-minute movement that is divided into several smaller sections, beginning with Ligetiesque harmonies (albeit some 50 years before Ligeti himself had hit upon them), before veering unpredictably into a surreal soundscape of Minimalist-like repetitions, slow canons, dreamlike oases of Romantic reflection, and some spectacular moments of chaotic dissonance.
‘Veiled in black and impenetrable mists of death,’ is how Langgaard – a firm believer in an apocalyptic form of Christianity – once described these movements, donating each with surreal and introspective titles ranging from ‘Like sunbeams on a coffin decorated with sweet-smelling flowers (Poco mosso) to ‘The End: Antichrist'.
If the darkness of Langgaard’s vision is one reason why this work has never been snapped up by British concert promoters, its huge resources are undoubtedly another – Inger Dam-Jensen enchanted as the soprano soloist, accompanied by large double choir, large orchestra including ‘glissando-piano’ (on which the performer glissandos directly on the strings), organ, and a smaller ‘distant’ orchestra that sounded somewhere up in the gods.
Dausgaard and his Danish forces have championed this piece, and were able to produce some wonderfully unsettling moments of theatricality, such as when the second ensemble would take over from the players on stage who then sat lifeless while Dausgaard continued to conduct, the music hovering like a ghost-like presence somewhere overhead.
It was testament to the quality of the playing that it managed to cast off Langgaard’s heavy spell in Sibelius's Fifth Symphony (albeit, for me, only about two thirds of the way through the first movement) that followed the second interval, eventually bringing us firmly back to the land of the living with the triumphant ‘Swan Hymn’ of the final Allegro.
Dausgaard is quite the showman, and this was really quite some show. Two encores completed the concert, the Second Lied from Sibelius’s Tempest Overture and the Champagne Gallop – an orchestral parody by Lumbye, which Dausgaard turned into an audience clap-along. The irony could not have been laced more delicately.
Prom 35: Ligeti: Night; Morning; Tchaikovksy: Violin Concerto; Ligeti: Lux aeterna; Langgaard: Music of the Spheres; Sibelius: Symphony No. 5
Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano); Henning Kraggerud (violin); Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Concert Choir and Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
Nick Shave is a freelance music writer, critic, and contributing editor to BBC Music Magazine. He has spent many happy summers reviewing the Proms, but is still prone to a loss of bearings when choosing the quickest way round the Royal Albert Hall.
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