> Vagn Holmboe - Symphonies Nos. 1, 3, 10 [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Vagn HOLMBOE (1909-1996)
Symphony No1 for Chamber Orchestra Op 4 (1935)
Symphony No 3 Sinfonia rustica Op 25 (1941)
Symphony No 10 Op 105 (1970-71)
Aarhus Symphony orchestra/Owain Arwel Hughes
Recorded at Musikhuset Aarhus, January 1993 (Nos 3 and 10) and June 1993 (No 1)
BIS-CD 605 [70.30]


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This fascinating trio of symphonies takes Holmboe from his Rumanian study trips and marriage to Meta May Graf through the first of his wartime symphonies to the stunning Tenth, a period of some thirty-five years. Holmboe had studied with a variety of composition teachers – Toch, briefly, in Berlin and Honegger later in Paris amongst them and it was shortly after his return to Denmark that he began work on the First Symphony, written for a chamber orchestra and his Op 4. This three-movement work – in conventional fast-slow-fast format - was composed between June and September 1935 but was to be performed only in 1938 in a performance given by the Aarhus City Orchestra conducted by Thomas Jensen.

Opening with a supportive drum tattoo and incipiently event-laden orchestration it is vaguely neo-classical in profile. Slashing attacks and a staunch motto-repeating trumpet begin counter waves of material, elegant and decorative flute, a return to the initial propulsive theme and renewed thrusting, eventually blazing conclusiveness. The slow movement is pastoral with interjectory incident, a strong rhythmic impetus underlying all and Holmboe displays his ability, even this early in his compositional career, to conjoin material initially seemingly disparate. The finale picks up the vigour of the opening movement and is launched by wood blocks; the trumpet is again prominent in the ensemble adding direction and incisiveness to the movement, replenishing and redoubling its material in concise attacks. This sixteen-minute symphony, vibrant, energetic and attractive opens the Holmboe canon with uncomplicated surety and great orchestral confidence.

The Third has the sub-title Sinfonia rustica and dates from 1941, the first of his three wartime symphonies. Like the first it opens in a spirit of confidence employing Jutish melodies energised and augmented by a powerfully determined and astringent trumpet, a recurring Holmboe device, and an orchestral tool not unknown to his one–time composition teacher, Honegger. The second movement, a series of variations, is melancholy with powerful tread, inexorable and sustained. It gains in amplitude and volume rising to a restrained and profoundly moving nobility of utterance until the appearance of the brass, strident and implacable and the renewed string tread. One of the greatest symphonic statements of the wartime years ends with a note of determined ambiguity. By contrast the finale is all lightness and mobility with an ebullient series of dance episodes, vivacious and captivating, driving with folkloric vigour to a festive close.

The distance between the Third and Tenth symphonies is not one measured in years alone. The Tenth was composed in 1970-71 and premiered by the Detroit Symphony orchestra under Sixten Ehrling. It opens with percussion and much glowering reserve. Percussive interjection provokes more dark hued orchestral material – oily black lower brass, suspended woodwind figures, static strings – until more martial drums lend an urgency and cumulative power which both relaxes and onrushes. Scurrying material frantically propels the metamorphisised argument onward. As the movement began with anticipatory cymbal so it ends with abrupt drums – an arc of delineated tension and powerfully argued material, concise, logical, tonal, developing inexorably from the initial seed material. The slow movement opens with solemnity, develops into some vexed and raucous argument before turning vengeful and malign for all the marking of andante affettuoso. For over nine minutes, as Holmboe’s trumpet snakes through the fabric of the score, as the momentum develops inexorably into heavy rhythmic attacks, the cumulative significance of his material only becomes clear at the close when, remarkably, astonishingly, the implacable rhythmic tread seems to continue beyond the movement’s end, as if the material exists outside the constraints of symphonic form, even beyond the constraints of time and place. The mood of grim insistence is carried over to the finale – marked Allegro con forza – before a gradual lightening of tone and orchestral weight leads to occasional, though not overwhelming, outbursts. The movement concludes with a sense of – not untroubled, still brooding – finality. As a symphonic statement the Tenth is a deeply powerful work. Together this trilogy of Holmboe’s symphonies establishes his place in the great hierarchy of symphonic composers. These are superbly cogent works performed with stunning intelligence, tonal blend, sectional discipline and conductorly flair. Unreservedly recommended – I’m tempted to say mandatory.

Jonathan Woolf

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