Loving Langgaard: Chamber Music Edition

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Langgaardchamber

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 10

If you draw a squiggly line between Brahms, Sibelius, and Einojuhani Rautavaara and put down your palm flat in the middle, you’ll have arrived, more or less, at Rued Langgaard’s idiom–or slightly north of it. If that eschews a concrete definition, well, so does the composer: Langgaard (1893-1952) was the quintessential oddball composer of the 20th century, although he may never have meant to be. He was either well ahead of his time, stylistically, or purposefully behind. You might find him looking for Wagnerian sounds, coupled with some of the colorful strangeness of Scriabin, and the lushness of Richard Strauss. Elsewhere he bumps up against the boundaries of form and tonality in the most kaleidoscopic, imaginative ways.

Despite early success in Continental Europe–especially Germany–he had the dickens of a time finding a secure job in his native Denmark where the mood was conservative, the musical climate dominated by Carl Nielsen (much to Langgaard’s chagrin), with little to no room for Langgaard’s space-ball music. He eventually got a minor organist’s position in out-of-the-way Ribe and ended up composing for posterity’s amazement, rather than dazzling the audiences of his time.

These chamber pieces for violin and piano are not his main works, nor his wackiest or most daring, but they are marvelous vignettes and show the composer’s ravishing penchant for beauty. Especially the shorter pieces on this disc (like the concise, condensed Écrasez l’infâme and Short Sonata) are marvelous examples of just how beautiful music–any music–can be. In fact, I first met and immediately fell in love with Langgaard over some of these works on an earlier Dacapo recording with Serguei Azizian and Anne Øland. The fact that the label is now re-recording these works is perhaps surprising but evidently part of Dacapo’s efforts to do Langgaard proper justice: Rather than being overkill or a luxurious treatment, multiple recordings of this repertoire are highly welcome, because precisely in the variety of interpretations lies the beginning of a true appreciation of any composer.

The Short Sonata, true to its name, is a three-and-a-half-minute firecracker of fierce melodic intensity with a joyously bouncing finale and a sensual, lyrical middle that caresses the listener’s cheek with the soft back of the hand. The first of Écrasez l’infâme’s five miniature movements is played with ferocity by violinist Gunvor Sihm and pianist Berit Johansen Tange (a student of Øland’s)–the one instance where I prefer the hint of Brahmsian languor from Azizian/Øland. Perhaps the former’s approach is a better fit for the Voltaire-inspired, anti-religious title “crush the abomination”, though? Like the Short Sonata, it features the Webern-like brevity that Langgaard developed in his later years, saying all that he needs and wants to say in the least possible amount of space.

The Fourth Sonata, the most substantial–in any case longest–work on the disc is a five-movement reflection (often quite upbeat) on “Pace nobis, Jesu” (apparently translated as “Spare us, O Jesus”) that attains here the conciseness that I missed from Azizian/Øland. It plays out like a chromatic questioning of the viability of romantic lyricism in C major in post-War 1949–only to affirm it wholeheartedly in the end. The world-premiere recording of the two finished movements of an early, otherwise incomplete sonata for piano and violin is a terrific bonus: late Robert Schumann meets Carl Nielsen. This is Surprised-by-Beauty music of the first order, magnificently performed and recorded and very much recommended to any explorer of the hidden charming sides of 20th-century music.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Écrasez l’infâme, Short Sonata: Serguei Azizian, Anne Øland (Dacapo)

  • LANGGAARD, RUED:
    Écrasez l’infâme; "Unfinished" Sonata for Piano & Violin; Short Violin Sonata; Violin Sonata No. 4
  • Gunvor Sihm (violin); Berit Johansen Tange (piano)

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