Vagn HOLMBOE (1909-1996)
Primavera - for flute and piano trio, op. 55(1951) [15:11]
Gioco - for string trio, op. 155 (1983) [13:23]
Sonata per flauto solo, op. 71 (1957) [15:50]
Ballata - for piano quartet, op. 159 (1984) [12:57]
Quartetto - for flute and string trio, op. 90 (1966) [14:59]
Ensembl MidtVest
rec. HEART – Herning Museum of Contemporary Art, Herning, Denmark, 17-21 May, 9 June 2010
DACAPO 8.226073 [72:20]
The invariably high quality of the music of Vagn Holmboe has not led to any kind of fame beyond the shrinking circles of classical music-lovers. It cannot be said that he’s poorly represented on disc: his 15 symphonies, 20 string quartets, 13 chamber concertos, the Requiem for Nietzsche, and a recording of his a capella music have long been available. A concerto for brass group, one for cello and orchestra, sonatas for various winds and piano, solo piano works and piano trios are also on CD, mostly in anthologies. Adding to this bounty, works that even his followers had no idea existed have recently been released: Preludes for Sinfonietta, 4 string Sinfonias, 3 Chamber Symphonies, works for single and accompanied guitar, and works for violin and piano.
I return to Holmboe more often than to most of my other top-ten 'classical' composers as I often find something fresh and intriguing to appreciate. It is tonal, rhythmic and tuneful. For its rigour and organization, it belongs in line with Bach, Haydn and Stravinsky – although its harmonic strengths suggest close attention to Hindemith. While a classicist to the core, his symphonies and concertante works also reflect plenty from the more Dionysian 19th century: they can be vigorous and extroverted, and do not shy from romantic sweep and grandiosity. Despite this music’s strong visceral undertow, it appeals at least as much to the intellect: it is highly crafted and, at first exposure, emotionally cool – yet also driven by the kind of passion often associated with Shostakovich.
Holmboe's music is well-suited for 21st century ears, and ought to be programmed for concert halls, and often, to gain young audiences who will not turn up for more and more Mozart. For one thing, his use of percussion is without equal in Western art music, or “classical.” Fans of Art Blakey or Led Zeppelin's John Bonham should find much to like. Without being extravagant, it is vivid and can be aggressive, and is always woven deep into the warp and weft of his orchestral scores; try his 5th Symphony. His percussion adds a primeval element that offsets his often meticulous discipline – and either frames and enhances his knotty musical tapestries, or, alternatively, it provides relief from that elaborate quality.
The flip side of Holmboe’s near-Bartókian intensity is that one full hour of his string quartets can be challenging, even exhausting. Just as any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell should, as they say, stay there, this CD of chamber works puts the lie to this generalization. These pieces are, in fact, anything but heavy or taxing. All are succinct, ranging from 13 to 16 minutes long, and they lack the grand scope or vision at the core of Holmboe’s symphonies. Also, their instrumental variety relieves anything approaching sonic exhaustion. The featured flute in three of them also accounts, in part, for a sprightly, occasionally jolly air. As Jens Cornelius’s liner-notes mention, the instruments often assume a “democratic” or egalitarian character. Indeed, each voice is strongly profiled and plays solo, in duos and trios, and only occasionally with the whole ensemble. This, too, conveys a certain superficial ease – although while this music is approachable, it could never be called ingratiating, or “light”.
The 1951 flute quartet Primavera, the earliest piece on the album, is imaginative and attractive, and perhaps more conventional than the others on the disc. The flute begins with an effervescent tune recalling Martinu, or Ravel at his most chipper. As the strings in succession reconsider its motif, with each instrument retaining its distinctive voice, it soon becomes clear that Primavera will unfold, like the spring itself, only with some intricacy. In the second movement, the flute and viola lock into a tense duet, and are now and then joined by other strings, until a cascading figure by the piano blends in. This last soon overwhelms all but the insistent flute, which remains lingering with its song. This Debussyesque Andante tranquillo’s mood seeps into the last movement, where the proceedings slow to a near halt before a return to the opening, playful theme – until the players charge off towards what culminates in an ironically tidy, near-whispered finale.
The CD's other work featuring a piano, the 2-movement Ballata, is sinewy and not quite as seductive as this mellifluous Primavera, although it is rather more compelling. This 1984 piano quartet does not fix on any determinate melodies: instead, the strings continually tease out a succession of melodic cells, mostly against the piano. Every time these forays by the free-floating strings cede to the keyboard’s persistent rhythms, the players surge on in ensemble. This occurs frequently, although the brief (12:57) Ballata ends enigmatically, with only a vague synthesis: while the piano gambols off in a playful set of runs, the strings strive to wax on, near-transfixed, at the close. The inspired beauty of Ballata and its eerie musicality are beyond doubt, but the constant alternations in tension, focus and tempo make this the CD's most challenging work.
The solo Flute Sonata's opening prelude and fugue invoke Bach, followed by an Andante interroto that alludes to Bartók's Intermezzo interroto, from his Concerto for Orchestra. Holmboe's movement is so stripped of adornment as to conceal any overt echoes to Bartók's, which is some of his most lush and rhapsodic music - even in its piano reduction. A winning Rondo ends the work, returning us to the opening Bachian symmetries, including to a duet that the solo flute feigns by playing in different registers. Listeners are then mischievously tripped up with a false ending before the actual close.
The 1966 Quartetto is essentially a string quartet with a flute replacing the violin. Any doubts about the altered instrumentation dissipate during the middle and longest of its three movements. The fluty sonorities of this Adagio make for the CD's most ethereal music. For all its unsettling and ever-varying polyphony, the Ensembl MidtVest play this piece with confidence and brio.
The 1983 Gioco is a charming string trio that would make Haydn proud, and is surely the album's most approachable work. This finely-honed work pulses with catchy ostinati and syncopated rhythms, and closes with edgy, folk-like tunes. While these outer movements involve much pirouetting and dynamic change, the two inner ones are simpler, even-keeled, and introspective. A striking elegance distinguishes the second of them, while the first captivates as the players meander about one another with near-Gallic grace.
Holmboe's string quartets are a touchstone for these chamber works, which also resemble the fragile but disquieting Recorder Concerto premiered by Michala Petri in Moonchild's Dream. Still, their crisp lyricism is merely one luminous corner of his palette, showing the composer at his most neo-classical.
A fuller appreciation of Holmboe, who can make such stellar use of blended voices and denser textures, requires spending time with his Fifth and Seventh symphonies, and perhaps his Concerto for Piano Trio and Chamber Orchestra, at the very least.
Note also that plenty of his massive output still remains unrecorded. This includes a Sonata for Recorder and Harpsichord (1980), various works for accordion, Ondata (Waves) I and II - for Percussion (1972 and 1978), Epos for 2 pianos and 2 percussion (1989-90); even an unnumbered opus, the 1969 film score Multityder (Multitudes), awaits release.
Be this as it may, the present CD’s chamber works are beautifully-shaped and engaging – features of all of Holmboe's music. The Ensembl MidtVest play with polished delicacy but genuine relish, handling with apparent ease more than a few challenges while making the most of DaCapo's impeccable sound.
The CD's cover calls it "...the beginning of a new series devoted to [Holmboe's] previously unrecorded chamber works...", although 'Quartetto' and the solo Flute Sonata appeared in the 2001 release 'Vagn Holmboe: Chamber Works for Flute' (Peter Ettrup Larsen: ALB023622).
In felicity these works sit comfortably beside those by Martinu and Poulenc – although they are rather more gritty than the latter's, and, like the former's, they very richly reward attentive listeners.
Fans should not hesitate to add this to their collections, and others are not likely to regret it.

Bert Bailey

In felicity these works sit comfortably beside those by Martinu and Poulenc.

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