A concert in three parts from the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under principal conductor and fellow Dane Thomas Dausgaard, offered one of the most imaginatively programmed Proms of the season thus far. Both first and second parts began with Ligeti, his choral bagatelles Night and Morning proceeding with scarcely pause for breath into the imposing Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, later the Lux Aeterna segued almost seamlessly into Langgaard's Music of the Spheres. From the barely audible beginnings of Ligeti's Night, building through the cock-a-doodle-doos of Morning, moving directly into the classically refined opening phrases of the Tchaikovsky, is the type of bold move for which Dausgaard, standing out from his orchestra in a white jacket, is known.
Ultimately, however, it was a risk that to my ears did not quite pay off, although puzzling the senses was to be a feature of the evening. Soloist Henning Kraggerud's low-key emergence from the tutti strings for the Tchaikovsky characterised the performance that followed. One of the most difficult and technically demanding concerti in the violin repertoire, Kraggerud kept any ostentatious fireworks under wraps in a wholly classical reading of the work. Although his pitch on occasion sounded a little slippy, Kraggerud's seemingly endless phrases held the attention of the audience right through to the folksy Finale, where the Norwegian soloist was transformed into a playful gypsy.
Nonetheless, the concerto left me feeling a little underwhelmed; whilst orchestra and soloist were consistently together, the opposition that is fundamental to a concerto was missing - it never felt as though Kraggerud was prepared to stand up and be noticed, although he met the virtuosic elements of the work with apparent ease. This remarkable elegance was highlighted in an encore by compatriot Ole Bull, a Fantasie full of melancholy and tricky sustained double stopping that fully deserved the rapturous applause of the packed Albert Hall.
In the second part of the concert, Rued Langgaard's mystical composition was a revelation. Again following immediately from a capella Ligeti, in this instance Lux aeterna, Ligeti's choice remark on hearing the work that he had been an unconscious 'Langgaard imitator' was made explicit. Although composed in 1916-18, and premiered in Germany in 1921, Music of the Spheres largely disappeared from public hearing until 1968 when it was rediscovered by Danish composer Per Nørgård. Astonishingly, for a work that demands vast spaces and concentrates the senses, last night's performance was its UK premiere.
Ostensibly one large spanning movement, Music of the Spheres is made of smaller episodes, each bearing evocative titles such as 'Like sunbeams on a coffin decorated with sweet-smelling flowers', 'Glimpse of the sun through tears' and the final 'The End: Antichrist – Christ', each challenging and confusing all sensory expectation. Featuring no less than four timpanists, the modernist statements of that more famous Dane, Carl Nielsen, were evoked; there were glimpses too of late-Romantic harmonies, a conscious remembrance of the remnants of tonality, as well as bewildering canons, and Ives-like polytonal meanderings. In a disorientating dream-like sequence established by chorale-echoing strings, soprano Inger Dam-Jensen floated into the texture, heard from the gods of the Albert Hall but not seen, before the work finally culminated on a sustained cluster chord.
The creation of an almost otherworldly soundscape continued in the final piece of the concert, Sibelius's Symphony No. 5. The opening of the symphony, the luxuriant horn call from which the entire work germinates, felt a little too rushed, Dausgaard's gestures too bouncy, which effectively undermined the metrical modulation at the B major breakthrough into the fused 'second movement' Scherzo. Indeed, the tempi changes that are so important to this work were often scrappy and not quite together, whilst the central Andante felt heavy and slightly laboured to start, and ended abruptly. In the Finale, however, the less vibrato-dependent Nordic sound that is so different to European orchestras perfectly complimented the Sibelius, col legno basses and surging strings with roguish wind interjections driving the movement to its throbbing climax. Two short encores, an all-too-brief Ariel's song from Sibelius's incidental music to The Tempest, and a playful Danish Champagne Galop, complete with comic xylophone, completed the night's entertainment.
Thomas Dausgaard returns to the Proms on Monday 23rd August with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra
Photo: Rued Langgaard