> HOLMBOE Symphonies 11,12,13 [JW] : Classical Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Vagn HOLMBOE (1909-1996)
Symphony No 11 Op 144 (1980)
Symphony No 12 Op 175 (1988)
Symphony No 13 Op 192 (1994)
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra
Owain Arwel Hughes
Recorded Musikhuset, Aarhus, June 1994 (Symphonies11 and 12) and January 1996 (Symphony 13)
BIS CD 728 [63.05]
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This is the final instalment of the BIS Holmboe symphonic cycle, as significant an achievement in its way as that of his near contemporary Rubbra and the Chandos cycle of his symphonies. Written over a fourteen-year period, each of three movements, each compact, each nevertheless occupies a discrete sound world and one of quite breathtaking scoring. Holmboe’s resources were intact up until the end of his long life and this disc both reflects the compositional traits that animated his writing and also the life force that coursed throughout his life undimmed by old age.

Symphony No 11 opens with a gentle evolutionary feeling – the flute flecks the canvas, the strong trumpet motif that follows is invigorating and rhythmically quirky. The strings float with elfin beauty and the flute wanders discursively amongst the patina Holmboe evokes. More punchy animated writing drives the argument forward before it winds down like the uncoiling of some huge spring, at the end of which, whimsically, the flute has the last delicate word. The second movement begins in frowningly unsettled fashion but relaxes into flute led delicacy once more before vigorously assertive bisecting brass cut into the score and propels the typically tightly bound argument onwards. The finale, an Andante, opens in a parched, seemingly arid way. Once more though cor anglais and dappled violins nourish the aspect, an open air directness gathering strength as the string swirls and brass storming lead onwards to a strange, once more unsettled winding down into inconclusiveness.

No 12 dates from 1988 and was commissioned to mark Holmboe’s 80th birthday. As so often it opens in strong, striving fashion. With harp and woodwind fully engaged early on Holmboe introduces a strangely antique air before strong percussion interjections lead to renewed orchestral attacks; lots of short motifs lead to a decisive three-note close. The slow movement is withdrawn and mysterious – lower string pizzicati and tympani taps – until the arrival once more of more active and rhythmic material. A sense of stealth haunts the introduction to the last movement; a pregnant unease loiters as well and tentativeness before suddenly breaking out into newly rude health, strong without vociferousness, powerfully forward moving, and, characteristically Holmboe, a searing solo trumpet and percussive momentum lead the orchestra to a triumphant conclusion – journey’s end.

Holmboe’s last symphonic statement, the Thirteenth, comes from 1994, two years before his death. Dedicated to Owain Arwel Hughes there is no let up in Holmboe’s engagement with his material, no easeful falling away, no transcendent gentility, no compromises with Time or supposed frailty. This is echt-Holmboe to the very end. By now those characteristics that animate his music are obvious – and he begins the symphony in media res, as so often, with powerfully interjectory brass entries. Strong timpani rounds push the argument still further; from the word go there is plenty of activity for the woodwind and sectionally as well, musicians constantly kept on their mettle. At 4.50 the strings launch a solo cello and a kind of strange dislocating stasis develops – the solo is romantic but oddly cool and the movement ends once more unresolved. The second movement opens quietly and apparently benignly but disruptive material quickly intrudes until the calmo section, with its chirpy wind writing, tries to divert the increasingly oppressive atmosphere; unsuccessfully because waves of attacks from timpani, strings and brass lend a horribly poisoned air to the close of the movement. The finale returns to the thematic material of the first movement. By 3.20 the strings are slithering up and down the scale and a stern rather Russian phrase is introduced, integrated by the violins. Dynamic material gradually winds down, inexorably, to a single flute that ends the Holmboe canon with typically ambiguous unease.

Performances of drama and skill have lit this cycle from within. Production values of the highest have accorded it the documentation, the presence it deserves. Holmboe’s is a major voice in the symphonic canon of the last two thirds of the twentieth century. His individual voice never compromised, never veered from its language of tonality, never acquiesced in pictorial simplicities. He was a voice of our time and we honour his memory by listening to his music.

Jonathan Woolf



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Symphony no.11 op.144/M.304

Allegro - piu allegro - alla breve - pesante
Tempo guisto - presto - L'istesso tempo
Andante - piu mosso - a tempo

Symphony no.12 op.175/M.338
Allegro con forza
Andante sereno
Adagio - allegro con brio

Symphony no.13 op.192/M.362 Allegro assai - con moto - a tempo
Allegro moderato - animato - calmo - tempo 1
Allegro con brio - calmo - piu mosso - tempo 1

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