One small step

A brave Prom fails to take Guy Dammann out of this world.

Danish National Symphony Orchestra
BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London W8

While Roger Wright was preparing to take over the running of the Proms, one of the works he was most eager to see performed was a seldom-heard and deeply strange piece by the obscure Danish composer Rued Langgaard. Created during the First World War, Music of the Spheres is an extended meditation on the ancient Greek idea of the cosmos being ordered on musical lines.

It was greeted at its 1921 premiere with a mixture of amazed delight and bewildered suspicion and soon set to one side - as was, eventually, its prodigious but cranky creator - until its chance rediscovery in the late Sixties by the composers Per Nørgård and György Ligeti. Wright's long-wished-for Prom, which eventually came to pass on 11 August with a visit of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard, was its first performance in this country. I wonder if it may also prove to be its last.

The conditions couldn't have been better. Few venues could be more suited to Music of the Spheres than the Albert Hall, packed tight for the occasion. The Hall's lumbering and diffuse acoustics - so maddening in most orchestral performances - were for once perfectly tuned to the demands of the work's meandering material. The performance was also preceded by a mesmerising rendition, by the Danish National Vocal Ensemble, of Ligeti's minutely worked setting of the "Lux aeterna", which drew out the ear wonderfully and prepared it for the hushed and static music that followed.

The aspect of the piece that recommended it so strongly to Nørgård and Ligeti was its foreshadowing of a number of the compositional techniques central to the music of their own time. In composing it, Langgaard had sought to discard, as he put it, "everything one understands by themes, consistency, form and continuity", resorting instead to proto-minimalist procedures that zoom in on particular figurations, and a harmonic language that anticipates many of the central techniques of modern, post-tonal composition.

Music of the Spheres is fascinating in its level of detail. Despite scoring the work for a large orchestra, Langgaard employs the instruments mostly in concentrated patches, with an extended passage in which a repeated motif ricochets between four timpanists. The technique, which produces extraordinary harmonic and rhythmic effects, remains unique. The central climax occurs in a setting of a poem by Ida Lock, which begins: "If I plunge my soul into the depths/of grief and joy, in an instant,/I seem to hear the sounds/of a distant, transfigured music." It is scored for soprano and a small ensemble placed away from the stage, preferably - as on this occasion - high up in the gods, from where the vocal strains descend and collide with a tumult rising from the choir and orchestra.

And yet, despite many wonderful moments, the work is considerably less than the sum of its parts. For every interesting effect, minimalistic exploration or impressionistic flourish, there is some clumsy transition or clunky harmonic progression that brings Langgaard's celestial musings crashing to earth.

That is not to say that the performance was lacking. The orchestra gave it everything and Dausgaard was clearly infected by a strong dose of the composer's mystical zeal. But despite their efforts, none of the work's myriad effects seemed to stick, but rather came across as a parade of kitsch ephemera. Most disappointing of all, given its heralding of music written long after Langgaard's death, was its flaccid historical sense. Although the apocalyptic vision, which pits man against an indifferent cosmos, is very much of its time, Langgaard's concern to compose for eternity evidently blinded him to the needs of the here and now. As a result, the music appears indifferent to the listener.

Still, it has always been one of the excellent things about the Proms that an ostensibly populist format can be employed to focus light
on obscure music. And on the principle that everything should be heard once - as well as the principle that there is much that should be heard only once - Roger Wright should consider himself vindicated.

Guy Dammann teaches at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan