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Søren Nils EICHBERG (b. 1973)
Symphony No. 3 for orchestra, choir and electronics (2015) [35:10]
Morpheus – Concerto for orchestra (2013) [27:25]
Danish National Concert Choir and Symphony Orchestra / Robert Spano, Joshua Weilerstein
rec. 2013/2015, DR Koncerthuset Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark
Texts and translations included
DACAPO 8.226144 [62:35]

It’s been four years since Eichberg’s dark, provocative ‘robot-opera’ Glare premièred at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio to generally positive reviews. While the dramaturgy and vocal music put a few critics’ noses out of joint, Eichberg’s blending of instruments and electronics was singled out for praise and his seamless integration of these elements with chorus in his Third Symphony, which features on this superb Dacapo disc, impressed me mightily. This is the second issue on this label to be devoted to Eichberg’s orchestral music; its predecessor contained his first two symphonies and emerged in 2013. Like my colleague Byzantion, I found the propulsive, energised character of both pieces (these adjectives especially characterise the First Symphony), their superb orchestration and even some rather macho, and almost rock-like posturing, combined convincingly to make up a heady and irresistible cocktail. These works eschew any form of the ‘new simplicity’; they are noisy, confrontational and exciting. I find Eichberg to be the most talented of the generation of Danes born after 1970 (strictly speaking he is of dual German-Danish nationality - his birthplace was Stuttgart in fact) and this new disc triumphantly reinforces this view.

The Third Symphony was dedicated to Eichberg’s father who was in the latter stages of terminal illness at the time of its composition. In the composer’s brief note about the work in the booklet he underlines its elegiac nature and more restrained character in comparison with its predecessors. Intriguingly it incorporates a handful of diffuse elements which could strike one as being incompatible; they include electronic sounds in the form of recordings from NASA’s ‘Voyager’ probe, a Danish lullaby popularised by Nielsen, excerpts from the enigmatic, ancient poetry of Qu Yuan and the use of algorithms. In fact the whole piece coheres wonderfully well in its eight short sections and amounts to far more than the sum of its parts.

The symphony begins with fearful blows on the bass-drum, ominous and aggressive by turn, before the low voices of the chorus declaim excerpts from Qu Yuan’s unanswerable ‘Heavenly Questions’ and the listener becomes momentarily aware of the unearthly sounds of space; clearly we are looking outwards, not inwards. Spiralling high flute figures emerge and barely survive sharp interjections from the rest of the orchestra. The din subsides and reveals the childrens’ lullaby Solen er så rød, mor (Look, the sun is red, mum), tenderly presented on harp and pizzicato strings. Again there are acerbic interruptions, a dissonantly spectral string chord, the NASA sounds, and little cells of tuned percussion motifs, before the choir enters again, this time presenting a Hebrew text about lost childhood, accompanied by more percussion, this time like dimmed stars in a cloudy Northern sky. These vocal contributions combine chant, speech, and whispering and are punctuated by creepy, rising string motifs before resolving in a halo of luminous choral sound. If all this sounds very fragmentary and episodic, Eichberg weaves the elements together most skilfully. The recording is exceptionally vivid and encompasses an enormous dynamic range. A tiny central episode marked Ruhig aber genau (quietly but accurately) comprises a jigsaw of Nørgårdian fragments with prominent woodblock which are swallowed up by an infinite string glissando. The work assumes real mystery as the choir asks ‘Wer kann es sagen? Wer Weiss? (Who can say? Who knows?’) in a further fragment from the unfathomable ‘Heavenly Questions’ The last fifteen minutes of the work seems to project a sense of endless renewal as colourful new motifs emerge and absorb the material that has gone before. It is fast-moving and endlessly eventful, but the frequent changes of pace are oddly disconcerting and actually strike a more reflective tone than featured in Eichberg’s first two symphonies. The seventh section is dominated by an assertive, insinuating melody which gets pulled every which way by the orchestra, while in the final section the choir returns, this time wordlessly in a glorious, consoling and luminous A major chorale; at this point the strands of the work seem on the verge of being pulled together, but big questions remain, symbolised by odd non sequiturs which disturb the equilibrium. The build up to this final chorale is spellbinding and deeply moving, almost Brucknerian. In the last minute there’s a reprise of the Nørgårdian moment over a sustained chord. Eichberg’s Third Symphony is rich and compelling, a worthy follow-up to its two predecessors. It’s wonderfully performed by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Concert Choir under the experienced American Robert Spano.

It’s paired with another ample example of Eichberg’s craftsmanship, his Concerto for Orchestra. In his clear-sighted essay in the booklet, Scandinavian music specialist Andrew Mellor identifies overlaps in this work with the first two symphonies. It’s loud, virtuosic and rather virile and perhaps belies the expectations built up by its subtitle ‘Morpheus’. He speculates that Eichberg was perhaps taking one final opportunity to push this Danish orchestra to its limits, towards the end of a richly productive period in which he had been their first ever composer-in-residence. The concerto is certainly swaggering and virtuosic, and over seven brief sections draws on the traditions for the genre established firstly by Bartók and more obviously in this case by Lutoslawski. The percussionists are kept very busy, indeed stabbing-like gestures predominate throughout the work. There are rewarding contrasts between fast and slow sections, between the motoric and the static, and Eichberg’s handling of the colours at his disposal is confident and masterly. The Concerto is entirely satisfying and convincing in itself and constitutes much more than a makeweight for the symphony. In this live reading the band are energetically marshalled by another American, Joshua Weilerstein. The concerto’s rousing conclusion is greeted with whoops of delight by the Copenhagen audience.

The advocacy afforded to Eichberg by the Dacapo label is well-merited, and they have here rewarded him with two superlative recordings. 21st century orchestral music does not come much more exciting than this, and especially in the case of the symphony, more affecting to the open-minded, open-hearted listener. I urge anyone who has any serious interest in the future of the orchestra, and its traditional forms, to hear this exceptional disc.

Richard Hanlon



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