Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Len Mullenger:

VAGN HOLMBOE (1909-96)
Preludes for Sinfonietta:-
No. 10 To the Unsettled Weather (1991)
No. 5 To a Living Stone (1987)
No. 8 To the Victoria Embankment (1990)
No. 3 To a Maple Tree (1986)No. 2 To a Dolphin (1986)
Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen/Giordano Bellincampi
rec 7-11 Sept 1998, Lyngby Park Kapel
DA CAPO 8.224123 [50.02]

The ten Sinfoniettas are late works for small ensemble. They are dedicated to one of the composer's staunchest critical supporters, Robert Layton, the critic who has done more than anyone else in the British speaking musical press to introduce Scandinavian 20th century music. Mr Layton's always illuminating writing has been an enlivening presence since it began in the 1950s.

The sinfoniettas were completed between 1986 and 1991. In total they play for circa ninety minutes. This is the first of two volumes to encompass the complete series from Da Capo. The music is pointillistic - a sequence of aquarelles of the outdoors.

In Unsettled Weathers the tonality is at first indeterminate but soon develops with a feeling imbued from Nielsen's flute concerto and with some strange intrusions from Susato's Danserye. Nielsen's influence can also be heard in Living Stone which often flits into Japanese delicacy as if suggestive of one of Hovhaness's Moss Gardens. The percussion, on the other hand, darts and stamps in a most indelicate rhythmically vigorous way. Notable is the noble peroration which is followed by an understated, almost apologetic, quiet passage from the wind and strings. The 'Medieval' drum-dance runs through all these pieces and links with the courtly pavanes and estampes of Hovhaness e.g. in the Majnun and Saint Vartan symphonies.

A great emotional statement for solo cello dominates Victoria Embankment with the vibraphone throbbing discreetly beneath the passion of Hege Waldeland's cello. Staggeringly magical are the spoken words 'Yes it is midnight over London' delivered by the cellist in hushed tones. The final section is far more animated - juicy neo-classicism.

Maple Tree is chirpy, clamorous, flimsy, rugged, singing, shifting, busy. One wonders to what extent Holmboe may have interacted with his Swedish contemporary John Fernstrom whose Oriental background also pervades some of his music. The impression of delicate strength and wingbeats is also strong in Dolphin as are the Hovhaness-like elements mentioned previously. The seraphically singing strings parallel the divisi violins in Hovhaness's Fra Angelico overture and the Tippett Corelli Fantasia.

The Athelas Ensemble has eleven members (one each flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, bass) with others drawn from a pool of six guest musicians.

My impression is that the music is handled with great sensitivity and ruggedness - a tribute to the conductor and to each and every instrumentalist. Lively, uncramped, close recording with good notes but short playing time.

Another positive step towards making Holmboe's musical legacy known. The pulse continues untired and vivid.

Rob Barnett

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