When Richard Wagner’s final opera Parsifal premiered at his bespoke Bayreuth theatre in 1882, the cultural elite of Europe flocked to hear it with a ravenous desire for the new. I’ve often wondered what they heard – the same notes we do, yes, but it must have seemed like a long breath of air from another planet, alien and intoxicating. Going to hear Parsifal became a pilgrimage, because Wagner decreed that it could be seen only at Bayreuth. And when this embargo was lifted, some 30 years later, opera houses around the world rushed to stage the opera to satisfy the public appetite, which was substantial.

Thomas Dausgaard © Thomas Grondahl
Thomas Dausgaard
© Thomas Grondahl

The Prelude to Act 1 opened Prom 51, given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and their Chief Conductor Thomas Dausgaard, a concert which brought a similarly belated rush of the unfamiliar to its audience. Parsifal, along with Strauss’ similarly rarefied Four Last Songs, were this evening acting as preludes to Per Nørgård’s formidable Third Symphony, composed between 1972 and 75, and heard here in the UK for the first time. Wagner’s and Strauss’ scores received their first performances more than a half-century apart, but their initial audiences clamoured for the new in a way that is hard to conceive of in an age like our own, so wary and suspicious of untested and unfamiliar music.

Dausgaard found a pace for Wagner’s exploration of time and space that had movement but not undue haste, drawing some beautiful playing from the orchestra, though the ensemble drifted apart at the crucial moment that darkness tips back into light near the end, which was a shame.

Swedish soprano Malin Byström’s substantial and darkly full-bodied voice were well suited to Strauss’ late selection of songs, but the hall’s wrong-end-of-the-telescope acoustic made appreciating the subtly and delicacy of her interpretation and the orchestra’s accompaniment difficult.

Nørgård, now 86, was in the half-empty hall to hear his symphony. And while the 50-minute span of the work didn’t exactly transport the audience to an uncharted galaxy – the language could be described as fundamentally tonal with a good deal of atonal traffic – the thrill and rewards of being present for the unearthing of a rare treasure were real and palpable. When we hear new music (or at least music that is new to us), we begin a journey towards understanding, where recalling the start can be difficult when the music becomes extremely familiar. What can, say, Parsifal’s first audience have understood of what they’d heard, other than that they had been shaken and perhaps a little changed?

Andrew Mellor’s programme notes talked about the way in which Nørgård’s use of mathematical sequences informed the construction of the material. In all honesty, it would take a lot of repeat listening for me to tell you how that relates to the Symphony’s form and processes. Rather, this first orbit of Nørgård’s homeworld, revealed gorgeous detail, the basic clarity achieved while a lot of the complicated things happened, and the way in which simple harmonies seem to appear as though resolving through clouds of busy activity. It was all laid out with exquisite care and commitment by orchestra, chorus and conductor. If you could join me for another trip round this particular body, I’d point out the enchanting opening of the second movement (of two), the piano melody rising above a gentle cacophony of ideas. We’d puzzle again over the extended choral episodes which conclude the piece, which include texts from Rilke and Rückert. Would it still feel a bit long, or would the place of the texts in the whole become clearer? We won’t though, because this overdue première is unlikely to be repeated in a hurry. Normal service will resume in a day or two; the familiar will be back so we can reassure ourselves that we know the territory. But what if normal service didn’t resume, and we instead continued on into the unknown? One can dream.  

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