The evening’s music commenced with Ligeti’s Night; Morning, one of the composer’s last works before his emigration to the West. Although only a very short piece, it exhibits some of the compositional approaches that are now synonymous with Ligeti’s style. Amongst thick chord clusters, resonating and moving slowly and organically through micropolyphony, were the unexpected sounds of cockerel crows and tolling bells of Morning. Most enjoyable were the quietest sections of the music, executed with great control by the Danish National Vocal Ensemble to create a beautifully ambient and resonant sound. Unfortunately in some of the louder sections the sopranos seemed to obliterate the lower voices, losing the balance of the typically thick texture.

A strange thing happened once the singers’ music had died away, as conductor Thomas Dausgaard held the silence of the concert hall and segued straight into Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. The change in musical style felt quite abrupt, and I almost wondered if this was one part of Ligeti I had never heard before; like a mystery bonus track you might get on a CD, if you will. Once the strings had established themselves the choir were instructed to sit down, which was perhaps not as smooth as his gesture seemed to suggest. My gaze was suddenly brought back to the front of the stage by the sound of soloist Henning Kraggerud’s violin. For some reason I hadn’t even noticed him before so it almost gave the impression of an impromptu performance; a sort of “oh I know this one!” ...and off he goes. His approach and presentation also gave me an impression I would usually associate with a very talented folk fiddler, as he proceeded with a playful spirit. His highly enjoyable cadenzas featured inventive and frivolous elements like downward chordal glissandi that perhaps seemed more attuned to folk music or even Ligeti. His accuracy and clarity on the highest notes was equally impressive as he did not overuse vibrato, as I have seen in previous instances. The second movement of the piece exhibited some of the more lamentative passages with a wonderful sostenuto tone set against little moments of playfulness. The final movement saw a return to the playful and exciting playing of the first, with some delightful portamenti and excellent fast spiccato playing. Overall this was a remarkable performance filled with excitement and feeling; Kraggerud displayed what I believe a virtuoso should be, keeping the audience on its toes with plenty of surprises; executing a brilliantly virtuosic work in the most virtuosic way!

The return from the first interval saw a return to the music of Ligeti. Probably his most famous piece, Lux Aeterna was performed with wonderful balance and control to create the very organic, gradually evolving sound required by this micro-polyphonic music. At times it almost ceased to sound like human voices, the spread of tones resonating more like a temple bowl. The piece progressed with an ethereal quality, rising up gradually and dying away peacefully at the end.

The audience was not allowed to applaud this piece as the conductor again seemed to use it as a sort of prelude to the following work: the UK premier of Rued Langgaard’s Music of the Spheres. The transition worked much better this time as Langgaard’s style is much more similar to Ligeti’s, beginning with shimmering tremolando strings, building up chords instrument by instrument to then ‘dismantle’ the chord in the same fashion. Different instrument groups seemed to work independently of each other, perhaps in a way more familiar to electro-acoustic music. Other interesting things about the piece included the way in which sound was moved around the hall, with (what sounded like) a small chamber orchestra on the balcony right at the back with other soloists around the room (it was difficult to keep track) and a ‘glissando piano’ via the loudspeakers. Even if some members of the audience did not enjoy the music itself, no-one could deny that it was a very interesting sonic experience that gave me the impression of music being played in mystical cave –or something like that. What I found particularly interesting (and I don’t know if this was the composer’s intention or not) was the way different melodic fragments from different sections of the orchestra were mixed, changing the interpretation of those fragments. Some would be very beautiful individually but when mixed together would sound much more chaotic (such as shimmering string chords mixed with a gamelan-inspired figure on the ten timpani), whereas others that might have been neutral on their own were mixed together to create something altogether more beautiful.

The final performance of the evening was Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, which sounded quite unlike the previous, rather insipid, performance I had heard of the piece. I was impressed by the strings’ expression, phrasing and articulation towards everything they played. Whereas the last performance I heard seemed to treat everything up until the big tune of the final movement as arbitrary, here the orchestra played with total commitment, the music well interpreted to bring melodies out of the texture, with thoughtful use of dynamic contrast to bring the music to life. The sheer size of the orchestra, with extra players including 9 double basses and a left-handed cellist (!), really benefitted the overall sound of the piece and filled the hall tremendously well, whilst the ensemble sound of the orchestra was still impressively tight. The performance deservedly received rapturous applause and the audience were rewarded with a further two encores of delightful light-music. On a night that was all about Denmark, the National Orchestra and all the musicians gave a tremendous performance and certainly did their country proud.

Simon Birch
11th August 2010