Rued Langgaard: Rose Garden Songs

Ronald E. Grames, Fanfare
Mandag, 1. marts Fanfare Mar-Apr 2010

This program of choral songs by the eccentric Danish composer Rued Langgaard was originally released as a CD by marco polo in 1997 when dacapo’s catalog was being issued here on that label. The collection of 22 a cappella choral works was warmly received by Henry Fogel in Fanfare 21:3. It is now reissued on the dacapo label—again distributed by Naxos—in SACD.

Fogel found the works “restrained, deeply felt, and inventive” and the performances “stunning.” I could not agree more. I was less than enthusiastic about this composer’s symphonies when recently reviewing the dacapo set of Dausgaard performances, finding many of them self-indulgent, derivative, lacking in consistent invention, and deficient in coherent formal structure. None of these criticisms apply to the moving and beautifully crafted works here. Clearly, the predominantly tranquil texts that Langgaard set—full of images of nature and tenderness on the one hand and religious devotion on the other—or the very different compositional demands of choral writing (or likely both) allowed him to mine a vein of lyricism, gentle longing, devotion, and nostalgic regret that is only apparent sporadically in his symphonic output.

As my esteemed colleague also points out, there is a sense of both the old and the new in these works, drawing, as they do, on centuries of choral tradition. It is an effect not unlike that found in the choral works of Vaughan Williams—though the sound and style itself is quite different—with the old-fashioned quality of the works genially complemented by modern harmony and expressiveness. Actually, these songs bring to mind Brahms’s folk-inspired choral works at times, with an occasional harmonic twist as reminder that these are works of the 20th century. This is particularly true of the later sacred works, more traditional pieces that one can imagine were written with his South Jutland cathedral choir in mind.

The 12-member Ars Nova Copenhagen, formed by master conductor-composer and early music specialist Bo Holten in 1979, is one of the premier a capella ensembles, interpretively sensitive and flawless in ensemble and intonation. From 1996–2002, the group’s principal conductor was Hungarian conductor Tamás Vetö, a leading light in the Danish new music scene. Judging from this recording at least, made relatively early in the collaboration, it was an artistically fruitful match. These performances could not be more agreeable, either interpretively or technically. Those who own the original release will want to know if the remastering justifies a new expenditure. The CD layer on the new release has marginally more space around the choir. The SACD layers recreate the church venue even more convincingly—a definite improvement for those with the equipment to enjoy it. Admirers of great a cappella singing who don’t own these performances are urged to make their acquaintance.