21 June 2013
'Concertos' is the latest instalment in Danish label Dacapo's ongoing Holmboe-fest, a truly fantastic series that stretches back many years and which has yielded more than a dozen albums. This review considers the latest half a dozen of a series which almost seems to be accelerating, all the above having been released in the last two eighteen months or so. Holmboe wrote a lot of music, and there is every indication that this will all add up to a complete works, culminating eventually, for those who have the patience, in a bargain-priced boxed set.
At any rate, 'Concertos' is an excellent place to start a collection of Holmboe's music, a path that all true music lovers should take unhesitatingly. An incredible 63 years separate the first and second works, the excellence of both giving some indication of the unfailing fertility of Holmboe's imagination. The excitingly virtuosic but also memorably melodious viola and violin concertos are both premiere recordings. The outstanding concerto for orchestra is too, but, rather startlingly, this recording is thought to be its first ever performance - even Holmboe never got to hear it! The twentieth century has thrown up many neglected works with this title that deserve to feature regularly in concert halls alongside the famous one by Bartók; Holmboe's as a high-ranker. On a downbeat, whilst this recording's engineering is in 'Super Audio' and generally very good, the concerto for orchestra, for reasons best known to Dacapo, has been trimmed in the upper decibel range, giving a slightly flat feeling - all the odder given that the works were all recorded at the same time and venue. Nonetheless, with the quality playing of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra and two fine soloists, this disc, even with the sub-hour running time, adds up to a must-have.
The booklet notes assert that "Holmboe is one of those composers whose works are so plentiful and of such high quality that it can be hard to form an overall impression of the oeuvre." Previous entries in the Dacapo series certainly give credence to this idea.
Last summer the label released a disc of Holmboe's three chamber symphonies performed by the much-underrated Lapland SO under John Storgårds. In another coup for Dacapo, these were also first recordings. Despite their reduced forces, the Lapland SO generate a big sound for these electrifying performances of three vivid, lucid works that sound like a trilogy. Audio quality is slightly on the thin side, however.
'Chamber Symphonies' was sandwiched by 'Chamber Music' volumes I and II, with the latter coming out early in 2013. The first disc heralded "a new series devoted to previously unrecorded chamber works" by the composer, a fact rendered almost implausible by the sheer lyrical warmth and poetic depth of these frequently neo-classical-ish pieces, brought to life on both discs by expressive, advocative readings from the all too under-exposed Ensemble MidtVest and Dacapo's bright, intimate engineering.
Late 2012 saw the release of a collection of Holmboe's music for guitar, both solo and in chamber works. Admittedly, the composer is not at his most compelling when writing for guitar, the idioms usually sounding slightly contrived in Scandinavian (and for that matter eastern European) hands, yet Jesper Sivebæk's recital, with friends, is still a very pleasant way to spend a reflective hour or so. No one need fear the late composition dates - all his life Holmboe went his own way and, the odd excursion aside, it was not in the direction of modernism.
None of the works so far, apart from the Sonata for solo cello op.101, appeared on a double-disc Dacapo released in 2009 entitled 'Vagn Holmboe - The Key Masterpieces' (8.226101-02), a motley but tasty smörgåsbord - or kolde bord, as Holmboe would have said - of a compilation, and an ideal place for those not easily persuaded by words. Another recent Dacapo release (2010) not covered by this review is the bargain 7-CD boxed set of all of Holmboe's string quartets, performed by the Kontra Quartet. These works are a cornerstone of the composer's oeuvre and, if there were any justice, would be known to audiences and home listeners everywhere - the twentieth-century equivalent of Beethoven's sixteen.
For all discs reviewed here, the English-Danish booklet notes are well written and informative, with just the right amount of biographical versus musical detail. In all cases but one the writer is Jens Cornelius. [...]
The chamber concertos, released in the 1990s, languish by comparison in the back catalogue, but if this more recent batch is any measure, the many recordings still to come from Dacapo of one of Denmark's - and Europe's - finest twentieth-century composers will be snapped up without hesitation by all music lovers. Meanwhile, there is much more Holmboe on Danacord and especially BIS.