John Storgårds conducts Nørgård’s Symphonies Nos 4 & 5

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WORKS: Symphonies Nos 4 & 5
PERFORMER: Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgårds
CATALOGUE NO: 6.220646 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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There’s something almost miraculous about the way Finnish conductor John Storgårds has brought this music so finely and compellingly into focus. At times, listening to these quixotically vibrant, multi-layered scores, Jackson Pollock at his craziest has come to mind: you sense the energy in the teeming textures, but trying to find reassuring form can induce vertigo. I still find that partially true of the huge, dense, staggeringly profuse Fifth Symphony, but in the other three symphonies Storgårds has drawn out the Ariadne’s thread I always sensed had to be there and pulled it just tight enough.

For all his gloriously shameless, parallel worlds-embracing eclecticism, Danish composer Per Nørgård remains in one crucial sense a follower of Sibelius. There is an organic cohesion holding everything together, if only the performers have ears to hear it. The best demonstration of this – and definitely the best place to start for the newcomer – is the one-movement Second Symphony. At first all is ghostly detached sounds, but then a melodically tight little figure in running notes starts to unfold, somehow transforming yet remaining essentially the same. Mathematical fractals have a lot to do with it, intellectually speaking, yet the effect isn’t coldly cerebral: it feels natural, instinctual – as do the exultant brass and bells climaxes that grow out of it. Going from this to Symphony No. 6 you may just find that the earlier work has schooled you sufficiently in Nørgård’s thinking – that you can now trust the current to carry you onwards and enjoy the weird, playful magic of Nørgård’s ideas. The revelation for me was the Fourth Symphony, partly inspired by the paintings of the schizophrenic artist Adolf Wölfli. Somehow the music manages to be as startlingly lateral as Wölfli, yet not fundamentally fractured – the strangest changes still make a kind of profound sense. And the details – it isn’t just the clarity, it’s the expressiveness of it all that impresses again and again.

Andrew McGregor

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