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Vagn HOLMBOE (1909-1996)
The Chamber Concertos and Sinfonias
Danish National Chamber Orchestra/Hannu Koivula
rec. 1996-97, Danish Radio
DACAPO 8.206004 [6 CDs: 6:19:45]

Dacapo's prominence as Denmark's national classical label is a given. The present set which furthers Dacapo's reputation can be set alongside another of their boxes (string quartets) and a monument of a set from BIS (symphonies). Together these are the mainstays of Holmboe's recorded legacy. Issued as individual discs between 2001 and 2004 (CD 1 ~ CD 2 ~ CD 3 ~ CD 4 ~ CD 5-6) the six Chamber Concerto/Sinfonia discs now sit logically and economically in the same place. Quite apart from the composer, the set draws unity from a single orchestra and conductor even if the orchestra enjoyed different names (Danish Radio Concert Orchestra and Danish Radio Sinfonietta) when the earlier volumes came out.

I have drawn heavily on my earlier reviews in preparation of the present write-up. In hearing the discs now, I have found no cause to depart from views expressed in my initial individual disc reviews.

Holmboe's scores have yet to travel on the same scale as Nielsen's but these remain early days. The thirteen chamber concertos were written between 1939 and 1956. Rather like the similarly numerous Malcolm Arnold concertos, each was inspired by a specific soloist and each is tied up with the character of a soloist. Five of the concertos are for multiple 'lead' instruments. One (No. 8) is a concerto for orchestra. Amongst their number are concertos for solo piano, clarinet, viola, violin, oboe, trumpet and trombone.

The half-hour Piano Concerto is in two movements. Holmboe conjures clear and icy air. The music murmurs with plainchant and is restless with dances of chiff-chaff figuration. There's a touch of Martinů about it. Anne Ĝland demonstrates precise and fast playing but also draws on reserves of sensitivity. No. 2 is in four elegant movements. There is an allegro: all soft sliding watery themes and slender dancers. Add to this a vivacious rush of an Intermezzo I and a second, flute-led Intermezzo II in the form of a lovingly slow Bolero. The stamping finale is typical of this composer. Ĝstergaard is the stylish flautist partnering Futtrup's dashing violin. The Clarinet Concerto captures the gruff and gusty caprice of the Nielsen concerto. This is softened by the sort of simplicity found in Finzi's Bagatelles.

The three-movement Piano Trio Concerto is in the manner of Martinů again, but this is the Martinů of the Parisian years where divertimento is the order of the day rather than grand tragedy. We also catch resonances from Samuel Barber's Capricorn Concerto. The Viola Concerto is a work of dark elegies and meaty lyricism perhaps inevitably latching onto Hindemith's Schwanendreher. The Andante con moto is reflective, cool and earnest. Dark business seems to be in hand; after all, the chamber concertos from the Second to the Eighth were written during the Nazi occupation of Denmark.

The Violin Concerto's three movements start with a sturdy, capricious, fast-talking Andante-Allegro which finds a galumphing stride. The Andante tranquillo can be thought of as a snowy Lark Ascending rising to heights of exaltation. The writing has the chilly heart of Holst's Medieval Songs for voice and violin - especially ‘My heart hath nought but fire and ice’. The concerto ends with the rough vigour of the finale of Vaughan Williams' Concerto Accademico.

CD 3 presents three 20-minute concertos, two of them (7 and 8) in two movements and No. 9 in three. All date from the era 1944-46 - an emergence from darkness to light. The Oboe Concerto's Allegro non troppo links to the accented piston-pumping of Holmboe's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. This is sometimes bright and eager music. The roughened neo-classicism of the Sinfonia Concertante (1945) gives way to an Andante con variazioni that demonstrates how attached Holmboe was, at that stage, to Shostakovich's style. The squally, suave, earthy yet vulnerable Violin and Viola Concerto suggests to me parallels with Holst's Lyric Movement and Double Violin Concerto, and even Beethoven's Seventh, a symphony which also stalks Martinů's approximately contemporaneous Fifth Symphony. At the close the work stomps and shouts, with hats thrown high in the air.

The roughened textures of the Wood-Brass-Gut Concerto do not preclude Sibelian élan. It radiates exuberance perhaps associated with the end of the Second World War. The work's unresting activity suggests the lyrical intoxication of Tippett and the singing lines of the early works of Estonian symphonist Adolfs Skulte. Holmboe's characteristic stamping impacts should be seen in the context of Jon Leifs and Hilding Rosenberg. The Trumpet Concerto is from a more complicated world where the echoes of Hovhaness are present - you can hardly evade them in a work for trumpet and orchestra. The work wraps up with Shostakovich-accented staccato figuration for the solo instrument over scurrying strings. The Trombone Concerto speaks from the same manual as Robert Simpson with his Beethovenian hat on: try Symphony No. 4 and the central string quartets. While there are cheeky Nielsen-like rolls and slides Holmboe allows the trombone to be the singer too. The Oboe and Viola Concerto is also a work of singing propensity. It is ushered in by a very cold front where the viola's voice is matched up to the oboe. The gentle middle movement is a counterpart to the Malcolm Arnold Oboe Concerto with Sibelian rustlings and small stirrings of icy wind from the strings. The soloists prove typically articulate and demonstrate Holmboe's singing caprice against the bluffer natural qualities of their instruments.

These thirteen concertos have their flighty and virtuosic moments but all impress by their dialogue and their substantive 'meat'. The chamber qualities of conversational interplay and psychological counterpointing are accomplished with greater conviction and sincerity than would have been possible if celebrity soloists had been 'shipped in'.

The final pair of discs presents the four Sinfonias, which are all downright tonal. The First swerves and sidles between austere, tender and vivacious. Although Sinfonias I-III carry Italian expression marks there is a kaleidoscope of mood in each. The First projects Tippett-like joy but also carries a Shostakovich-style ‘scorch’. The Second, 'tranquillo', includes a lively ferment of string sound while also veering into desolation and the echoes of a Bachian chorale. Shuddering excitement and glowing sound constantly cycle between cool and warm. The Third includes music that is dartingly energetic. It is momentarily like Tapiola before returning to a slightly chilled echo of Wirén's Serenade. The Fourth is in four movements and deploys solo lines (cello and violin). The Preludio is hesitant, wispy and tense. Both Interludios (I and II) deploy mysterious scamperings and a col legno clatter. The solo instruments reach out.

The four Sinfonias can be heard either as independent works or as part of a larger work in which the movements are arranged in a different order. That larger work is called Kairos. Holmboe wrote that 'Kairos' means 'time in the psychological sense - the passage of time as we sense it as opposed to Chronos' the mechanical passage of seconds and minutes and hours. However, before we become drawn into that vortex we need to know that the composer has commented that such exegesis 'can only have a negative interest for anyone who wishes to listen to the music as such.' Da Capo have saved us the intricacy of reprogramming the CD player by including a bonus CD which has the same tracks as CD 1 but sequenced in the order prescribed to formulate the Kairos work. The Kairos sequence is: Preludio; Sinfonia 1; Interludio 1; Sinfonia 2; Interludio 2; Sinfonia 3 and Postludio.

These are all spirited readings, full of unruly life but in this case without the last word in luxury string tone - quite possibly none was contemplated by the composer. There are a few moments of strain and thinness but in general the music-making is highly sympathetic as you would expect from a conductor and orchestra who have spent years in the service of these significant, stimulating and loveable works.

These CDs are excellently annotated and recorded, with each of the six in its own stiff card sleeve. There's also a 24-page booklet in English and Danish. The essay is by Jens Cornelius. Booklet and discs sit in a sturdy card box.

This set is no mean achievement and is elevated by the artists' inspired and inspiring engagement. All in all, we are treated to a lovingly assembled project which will reward long term listening as well as dipping and sampling.

Rob Barnett 
CD 1 [67:52]
No. 1 for piano, strings and timpani (1939) [29:09]
No. 2 for flute, violin, strings and percussion (1940) [23:00]
No. 3 for clarinet and chamber orchestra (1940-42) [16:43]
CD 2 [61:54]
No. 4 for piano trio and chamber orchestra (1942-45) [16:29]
No. 5 for viola and chamber orchestra (1943) [22:50]
No. 6 for violin and chamber orchestra (1943) [22:35]
CD 3 [61:55]
No. 7 for oboe and chamber orchestra (1944-45) [19:58]
No. 8 for orchestra (Sinfonia Concertante) (1945) [21:08]
No. 9 for violin, viola and orchestra (1945-46) [20:48]
CD 4 [73:36
No. 10 for wood-brass-gut and orchestra (1945-46) [19:37]
No. 11 for trumpet and chamber orchestra (1948) [16:53]
No. 12 for trombone and orchestra (1950) [16:06]
No. 13 for oboe, viola and chamber orchestra (1955-56) [21:00]
CD 5 [56:47]
Sinfonias I-IV for strings Opp. 73a-d (1957-1962)
I Molto sostenuto (1957) [11:15]
II Tranquillo (1957) [19:01]
III Allegro con brio (1958-59) [10:51]
IV Preludio, Interludio I, Interludio II, Postludio (1962) [15:31]
CD 6 [56:57]
Kairos (Time): the movements of Sinfonias I-IV re-sequenced

Anne Ĝland (piano); Niels Thomsen (clarinet); Mikkel Futtrup (violin); Eva
Ĝstergaard (flute); Tim Frederiksen (viola); Niels Ullner (cello); Max Artved (oboe), Ole Edvard Antonsen (trumpet), Jacques Mauger (trombone), Soren Elbaek (violin), Troles Svane (cello)


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