CLASSICAL: Danish Composers' Biennale

The Nineties may offer thin pickings but the Sixties are in safe .hands - and they're Welsh. By Stephen Johnson

Denmark's Third Composers' Biennale set off on its two-week journey last Saturday. There were no fanfares, no conspicuous attempts to market the product, but the theatre at Copenhagen's Den Anden Opera ("The Other Opera") was packed, and the discussion during the intervals and after the concerts seemed - from my short investigative dips - lively enough.

Refreshingly, there was little evidence of the so-called "ghetto mentality": no protests (however muted) on behalf of "isms" or factions; no obvious little cliques darting hostile glances around the theatre bar. Either the Danish new-music scene is a lot less bitchy and insecure than its London counterpart, or the Danes are just better at swallowing their resentments. I have my suspicions, but for the moment I'll forbear to judge.

The quality of music in last Saturday's two concerts varied, naturally, but there was little that seemed less than accomplished, and from time to time - and particularly during the evening programme - a real, three- dimensional musical intelligence took centre-stage. Hans Abrahamsen's Winternacht was poetic in detail and overall conception. Winternacht's brand of gentle Northern Impressionism was echoed in Olav Berg's Four Poems and in parts of Rolf Wallin's Boyl (the name may have to be changed for British consumption). But the Berg had only just enough substance for one poem, let alone four, while the Wallin depended too heavily on stock soft-modernist devices, and the expected boyl-up never really happened. The players can't be blamed: the Norwegian BIT 20 Ensemble sounded like a first-class new-music band. They made a more convincing job of Magnus Lindberg's Corrente than any other group I've heard - so, those textures don't have to sound self-defeatingly dense after all.

The home-produced Athelas Ensemble's afternoon concert turned up some unexceptionably pretty things, notably Svend Hvindtfelt Nielsen's aptly named Flowerfall, and one entertaining relic of Sixties absurdism, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's Je ne me tairai jamais, Jamais.

But another Sixties survivor, Per Norgard's mini song-cycle Prisme, turned out to be a hard act to proceed. In its way, Prisme is just as much a child of the Sixties as Je ne ma tairai, and yet so much of it feels discovered, not borrowed or imitated. In one delicious moment a sharp, dry chord cut off to reveal a comically wobbling electric guitar - others have tried things like it, so why was this unmistakably Norgard?

By an elegant piece of planning, the previous evening's Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra concert included two works by veteran Danes: the 86- year-old Vagn Holmboe's new 13th Symphony and the oratorio Moses, written just over 30 years ago (the same year as Norgard's Prisme) by Herman Koppel, Holmboe's senior by one year.

Holmboe's new symphony may fall short of his best (eg Nos 8 and 10) in imagination and sustained argument, but the vitality was real enough. Composers in their eighties, if they write symphonies at all, don't normally conceive them in three muscular fast movements.

Koppel's Moses was a find, clearly indebted to Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, but with a hieratic grittiness of its own. Of all the pieces performed during the weekend, this and the Norgard are the ones I'd most like to hear again. The Welsh conductor Owain Arwel Hughes (whose BIS recording of Holmboe's Eighth and Ninth Symphonies with the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra I chose as one of my five discs of 1995) directed it all impressively, and was warmly applauded by the audience for his efforts. With or without the daffodil buttonhole, he looks as though he's well on his way to becoming an honorary Dane.

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