Rued Langgaard's Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

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Pity poor Rued Langgaard, who devoted his life to music while his own compositions wouldn’t come to be accepted until more than a decade after his death in 1952 (which, in and of itself, was untimely, occurring mere days before the Copenhagen-born composer’s 59th birthday). 

Longer, still, has been Langgaard’s journey to recorded immortality, though recent years have sought to rectify that glaring omission. The last decade has been especially prolific for the composer’s oeuvre, thanks in no small part to fellow Danish music-maker, Dacapo Records. Its latest venture focuses on Langgaard’s eight string quartets, three of which are represented here (along with his Variations on "Mig hjertelig nu længes" or, “Oh, Sacred Head, Now Wounded”).

Very quickly, you see why Langgaard languished on the Island of Misfit Scandinavian Music Toys. He emerged in an era when Danish music was moving out of extroverted romanticism into limned lines with all the intricacies of a midcentury modern coffee table. Langgaard was unapologetically, even psychotically florid. His music has that simultaneous blend of vivid brushwork and disturbing imagery seen in an Egon Schiele painting. The surface is aesthetically pleasing, but within minutes you see that it’s a thin veneer covering up aching, anguished symbolism with Wagnerian gestures.

There are schizophrenic switches between tone and texture within movements of the same quartet—take, for example, the second movement of his third string quartet, which dances a line between fin-de-siècle elegance and Freudian agitation (re: the pizzicato movement of Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4) before quickly jumping into the unsettling, sardonic calm of its final movement.  

The Nightingale String Quartet extols every such shift and shade on this recording, diving in with a manic giddiness and sensitivity. Langgaard isn’t an object of commentary or psychological intrigue to them, rather he’s a kindred spirit. Makes you wonder what a night out with these four Danish dames would be like.