LANGGAARD: Symphony No. 4 "Leaf Fall." Symphony No. 5 (version I). Symphony No. 5 (version II) "Steppe Landscape (Summer Legend Drama)." Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
Dacapo 8.224215 {DDD} TT: 57:17

Not quite my cuppa. We know of composers who lived long enough to see their style superseded. Most people know Richard Strauss, who died in 1949 and by then was regarded as a relic. The wonderful and little-known Georg Schumann (no relation to Robert), who blended Brahms and Wagner, hung on, a late-nineteenth-century Romantic, well into the nineteen-fifties. On the other hand, the case of Rued Langgaard, Danish symphonist, quacks like the oddest duck that ever waddled. Langgaard, born after Nielsen and of the generation of Milhaud and Poulenc, sounds like he wrote twenty to thirty years before. He deliberately rejected Modernism, just as other composers enthusiastically took it up.

Most composers so self-consciously retro produce pale imitations of somebody who did it better. While it's hypothetically possible to write a wonderful piano sonata in the style of Haydn two hundred years after the fact, as far as I know only Carlos Chavez has done so. Those listeners waiting for the Mahler Eleventh or the Tchaikovsky Eighth really ought to spend their time more profitably on something else and then be pleasantly surprised when such beasts show up. Tonality may have come back, but it's neither Brahms's tonality nor that of the classic moderns, like Piston and Stravinsky. In short, like it or not, the Modern period has made its influence felt with most dedicated composers—that is, excluding the home hobbyists.

And then there's Langgaard. I must admit, the music divides me. Langgaard doesn't fall into the usual traps, mostly because he doesn't follow the usual paths. One describes the fourth symphony, for example, with difficulty. It doesn't use themes in the usual sense or even cells, and it certainly doesn't put things together in normal symphonic ways. It falls into thirteen marked sections, none of which have very much to do with one another, and all played without pause. At any particular time, one might reasonably feel as if one has just dropped into the middle of a symphony by Sibelius. The musical language itself poses no difficulties. Unlike a Sibelius symphony, however, it lacks a symphonic argument, as most of us have come to understand it. It comes over as a succession of localized textures, sharply defined, and gestures, in spite of repetitions here and there. For Langgaard, music seems feeling, first and foremost, and feeling is all. We seem to hear the soundtrack to an internal drama. The good news is that there is indeed feeling and drama in the music. The liner notes suggest that it represents an "autumn diary," as good a description as I can think of. Like a diary, one gets the intensity of the moment, particularly the momentary disappointments and downs as well as the rare up, without necessarily the perspective on a life as a whole. For instance, toward the end, there's a mind-blowing passage titled "Sunday Morning Bells," in which the orchestra, minus the percussion section, does a Straussian imitation of a carillon. However, it relates to nothing else in the work, and I know of no aesthetic law that says it must. Yet I miss a certain overarching perspective—the sensation I get when after hearing the entire Brahms Fourth, I suddenly understand how the very first measures of the opening movement have bound large sections of the entire symphony together.

The fifth symphony exists in two versions, finished roughly five years apart, which Langgaard actually labeled Version I and Version II. Some of the same ideas carry over from the early version to the late, but they really are two different works. This version, completed in 1926, has its Modern moments and, I think, in its insistence on simple figures, shows the influence of late Nielsen. Again, it consists of sections played without pause and runs a little over fourteen minutes. It hangs together a little better than the fourth but, again, not in a symphonic way; the individual sections cohere, but not the whole. Like the fourth, it boasts astonishing expressive "touches," especially the finale, with shimmering, sliding strings and a solo violin as rhythmically untethered as Nielsen's snare drum in his Fifth. Essentially, it's a programmatic piece, rather than a symphony, on the order of Strauss at his architecturally loosest, about a water spirit who plays unearthly music to lure humans to their deaths.

Langgaard embarked on the second version mainly because he wanted to tighten things up. To a very large extent, he succeeds. This symphony combines Nielsen and Sibelius in idiom. The Nielsen influence would have rankled Langgaard, had he admitted it; he was fairly Oedipal when it came to the older composer. But the fact remains, the sounds here are even more Nielsen-like than in the earlier version. The architecture lies nearer sonata form, although one would come closer to the truth to call it a "sonata with episodes," somewhat like Strauss's Don Juan. As far as I'm concerned, it's all to the good. Langgaard's very powerful inspiration doesn't dissipate, as it does when he follows the will-o'-the-wisp of a "neat idea." One sees large sections of the symphony in a relation to one another other than the merely programmatic. And it's certainly Langgaard who commandingly draws the relationships. One loses individual "shockers" of passages, like the solo violin of the first version, but one gains in that each idea in the second makes an ever-stronger impression as the symphony proceeds.
Dausgaard and the Danes do wonderful, insightful work. To some extent, Langgaard is so out of the mainstream that mainly those rare birds who have something to contribute actually perform him. God help him if he ever became fashionable.

The sound is fine, though not fabulous.
S.G.S. (October 2003)