Music of the Spheres is cosmically grandiose and gorgeous.
Rued Langgaard's Music of the Spheres is cosmically grandiose and gorgeous. dacapo records
In classical music, it would be hard to find a greater individualist than Danish composer Rued Langgaard. Unlike his anti-romantic contemporaries bent on writing "new" music, Langgaard remained rooted in tonality.
But the music on this new disc (from dacapo records) shows how Langgaard pushed the late-romantic envelope, expanding on the impressionistic symbolism of composers like Alexander Scriabin, and expressionism of Franz Schreker.
The three choral-symphonic works on the album span Langgaard's career, from 1916 through 1952. The 24-minute The Time of the End is a four-part, cantata-like compaction of his opera Antikrist and the seven-minute From the Abyss is a mini-requiem set to phrases from the Latin mass.
Oddly enough, the earliest music on the album, The Music of the Spheres (completed in 1918) is the most progressive, and an idiosyncratic Scandinavian masterpiece. Langgaard calls for a huge chorus and orchestra, plus a "distant" soprano and a fifteen-member instrumental ensemble. Conductor Thomas Dausgaard, who deftly commands the many forces here, brought the giant piece to the BBC Proms concerts last month for its British premiere.
Each of its 15 sections bears one of those quizzical captions Langgaard so loved ("Starlight on a Blue-tinged Sky at Dusk"), and he referred to the whole piece as "A life-and-death fantasia." But really, it's more of a musical stream of consciousness where recurring subatomic motifs and sound patterns are the only hints of any underlying plan.
The first seven sections could be described as galactic mood music, with shimmering strings, exotic organ stops and pounding timpani. No full-fledged thematic ideas here, just a fascinating swirl of melodic nebulosities that pan in and out of audibility. But things get "curiouser and curiouser" in the eighth section when a female soloist with chorus pipes up with a resounding "do-re-mi-fa-sol-la."
Later, the "distant" soprano appears with a tearful song, but it's just the calm before Langgaard's apocalyptic conclusion, titled "The End: Antichrist – Christ." It reflects his preoccupation with false prophets and the end of the world, perhaps brought on by the horrors of World War I.
The composer pulls out all of the stops here, beginning with a monumental crescendo containing what must be the longest choral pedal point and sustained timpani roll in all classical literature.
The singers then vanish as if swallowed up by some passing black hole, which suddenly flares into an orchestral supernova of sound. It quickly burns to a cold, dissonant cinder, ending this extraordinary journey much as it began in the vast emptiness of space. If there was ever any music suitable for a planetarium, this is it!
Bob McQuiston revels in under-the-radar repertoire at his web site Classical Lost and Found.