Langgaard: Antikrist / Byriel, Dahl, Elming, Dausgaard, Danish National Symphony

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Rued Langgaard's Antikrist is fabulous--a genuine, undiscovered, eccentric masterpiece. Of course, it helps that the composer was basically out of his mind, poor guy, and in order to understand why the opera is so much fun you need to know a little background. Langgaard's parents were deeply religious, and both were musicians and (it would seem) aesthetic snobs. They basically hated all modern music on both artistic and moral grounds, a juicy combination for a budding musician. This meant that Strauss, Puccini, and even Carl Nielsen were all dubbed evil, materialistic sensualists. Naturally, from a purely technical point of view, Langgaard was hugely attracted to this new music, just as he was morally repelled by it. He found a way to incorporate its style into his own, but only to the extent that he could make a point of its decadence--though he has such a good time luxuriating in its theoretical naughtiness (like a kid browsing through his first porn magazine) that it's a bit hard to take the moral angle all that seriously.

All of this comes to a head in Antikrist, composed during the lengthy period 1921-30, when the composer was only in his late 20s. The essence of the story is simple: Lucifer summons the Antichrist, with God's permission, to visit earth for a few days. His attributes manifest themselves in a series of scenes, each of which is dominated by a personification of the quality in question: there's The Mouth Speaking Great Things (sounding like a personal empowerment seminar), Despondency, The Lie, Hatred, The Great Whore, and The Scarlet Beast. They strut their stuff for a few minutes, cause total chaos on earth, and then God sends them all back into the pit and an angelic choir describes the need for spiritual transformation. End of story. The libretto, by the composer himself (naturally), is highly symbolic, meaning that it's full of incomprehensible gibberish that, like one of Gertrude Stein's texts, makes just enough sense that you know who the various characters are and also that something important is happening.

The music, though, is stunning. Composed in a magnificently sustained outpouring of glittering orchestration about an hour and a half in length, Langgaard has a field-day running the gamut from Wagner and Strauss to the more modern styles of the 1920s (such as Hindemith, whose music he did not know), to liturgical music (complete with organ). It's all seamlessly bound together by a few recurring motives, and the vocal lines surprisingly sound extremely beautiful and not at all ungraceful to sing. Although he wanted the work staged (it never was during his lifetime), it would make a stunning concert piece as well, something akin to Franz Schmidt's The Book of the Seven Seals, which it resembles in some respects--though it's a lot more fun to listen to. There really isn't a dull moment.

Happily, this performance is as spectacular as the work itself. The women are all magnificent, particularly the two sopranos, Anne Margrethe Dahl (Spirit of Mystery) and Camilla Nylund (The Great Whore). Among the men, Poul Elming's dashing top-hat-and-caned Mouth Speaking Great Things presents a characterful portrait of egotistical materialism, and Jon Ketilsson's heroic tenor ideally suits The Scarlet Beast. But then, there isn't a weak link anywhere. The production, beautifully lit and costumed, presents the work as a sort of morality play taking place within the plain interior of a Protestant/Quaker meeting-house, with the various worshipers taking the main roles through colorful changes of costume. Some of the on-stage camera work is a bit disorienting, but otherwise the production vividly brings to life a work that otherwise runs the risk of appearing static in terms of dramatic movement.

As you might have guessed, most of the action takes place in the orchestra. There are long interludes between scenes, huge climaxes, and an especially gorgeous final chorus, and Thomas Dausgaard leads an absolutely magnificent performance in all respects. It's also beautifully recorded in unobtrusively natural surround-sound (or stereo), with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, and Danish--and Dacapo's booklet notes are outstandingly informative. If you keep an open mind and just wallow in the glorious music, you're going to love this piece, and I can't imagine a better case being made for it than what you see and hear on this excellent DVD. It's a knockout! [9/26/2005]
--David Hurwitz,

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 2110402

  • UPC: 747313540259

  • Label: Marco Polo

  • Composer: Rued Langgaard

  • Conductor: Thomas Dausgaard

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Danish National Opera Choir, Danish National Orchestra

  • Performer: Anne Margrethe Dahl, Helene Gjerris, John Lundgren, Johnny Van Hal, Jon Ketilsson, Morten Suurballe, Poul Elming, Sten Byriel, Susanne Resmark