Performance on 3 - public orchestral concerts either recorded or broadcast live at 7.30 each weekday evening - included two of the Philharmonia's Ligeti series from the Festival Hall this week. But since Ligeti's music has been quite well circulated in recent years, another concert, right at the start of my listening period, was more newsworthy. It introduced the Second Symphony of the 65 year-old Danish composer, Per Norgard. He is indisputably Denmark's most distinguished living composer, yet this work had to wait 27 years for its first performance here, which was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. Norgard is not short of British admirers, and this concert was introduced by the Independent's own Stephen Johnson. Johnson pitched his presentation at the serious, committed listener, though he didn't exclude anyone else, and explained any musical terms that he needed to use. He also interviewed Norgard, who sounded like someone who had spent long hours alone and whose mind was focused on a far horizon. Norgard said the symphony - in general, not just this particular example - was "a severe form", and that in his second he aimed to "leave the normal stream of time". Which was a more personal - and also a less conceited - way of saying that he wanted his music to be "timeless". I have never found it realistic to estimate the length of a piece after listening. As I recorded this symphony off the radio, I kept an eye on my watch, and the piece felt fully like its 24 minutes - a long time for a single, continuous movement lacking a traditional framework. On a second hearing, without any time-checking, it felt much shorter, and when the end arrived, it seemed as if Norgard might be ready to embark on something much longer. We experience the same thing with a particular journey, because once we have registered, or learnt, its features, the distances between them lose their unknowability.
Norgard's Symphony starts with an enticing sense of possibility: a single pitch is sustained and varied in instrumental colour, wobbles in and out of tune, then fans out into a semitone. A continuous oscillation evolves, wiggling in widening intervals, against which longer lines are formed as well as counter-pulses, all within a medium to high register, and when at last the luminous orchestral haze disperses and we hear notes in the bass for the first time, it's like an anchor being dropped, and the music ends with a sense of stillness.
This symphony certainly is a severe form. There is no rhetoric, nor really are there any themes to speak of, though there are landmarks, usually single notes, like points of alarm. Norgard offers a musical experience of a very pure kind.