London Student

Prom 51: Strauss, Wagner & Per Nørgård, Royal Albert Hall


Over 40 years since its completion, Per Nørgård’s Third Symphony received its UK premiere in Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s second appearance at this year’s Proms.

From wobbling microtones to glassy violins squeaking into silence at the culmination of the first movement, the symphony is filled with compelling details and passages. It begins with a darkly sonorous undulating piano chord, xylophones and glockenspiels tintinnabulating. Under Dausgaard, its atmospheric opening sounded harsher, more forceful: flatulent bursts of brass heightening the discord. The BBCSO also accentuated the piece’s rhythmic complexity, particularly during in one polyrhythm-packed passage.

For a piece characterised by contrasting textures, the BBCSO’s rendition occasionally seemed to want greater dynamic range. The entrance of the choir in the second movement remedied this. Initially they acted like an ethereal synth pad in ambient electronica, gently diffusing over the orchestra. This delicacy proved ephemeral. Soon they were cachinnating as if mimicking a crowd of fragmented, neurotic voices. Add the Hall’s colossal organ to the arrangement and the symphony momentarily attained a bewilderingly cosmic breadth.

Pieces by Wagner and Strauss seemed rather odd precursors to Nørgård’s Third. Parsifal‘s 12 minute prelude eschewed Wagner’s usual pomp for meditative melancholy: serene strings drifting slowly in and out of time signatures before ebbing away. Strauss’ Four Last Songs initially felt unsettled, the orchestra and soprano soloist Malin Byström not quite attuned. The final two songs – “Going to Sleep” and “At Sunset” – were more affecting. Composed in the aftermath of the Second World War, they seemed wistful monuments to Romanticism and mortality.

Featured image: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.