Vagn Holmboe: Concertos
08 August 2013
Lee PassarellaDespite the fact that I’m generally a fan of twentieth-century “neos”
(whether neo-Classical or neo-Romantic), it took me a while to catch up with Vagn Holmboe, one of the century’s great neo-Classical composers. Holmboe may be one of those musicians, like Darius Milhaud, whose reputation is hurt by his own productivity. With a corpus numbering above three hundred works, including twenty completed string quartets, around the same number of concerti for various instruments, and thirteen symphonies, it may be a difficult for a listener—or critic—to assess his output or even, at least initially, give it serious consideration. Fortunately, recordings help the cause: all of Holmboe’s quartets, symphonies, and chamber symphonies are currently available, plus a number of his concertos, choral works, and pieces for solo instrument. I have a lot of catching up to do, but based on the works I’ve heard so far, I’m deeply impressed with Holmboe, probably Denmark’s greatest composer after Nielsen.
Holmboe displays all the characteristics of the neo-Classicist: driving rhythms, a tonal musical language spiked with tart harmonies, rigorous construction based on thematic development. However, in his early music, Holmboe employed Sibelian principles of development, introducing mere germs of melodies, which undergo transformation before being fully introduced—think of the greatest example from Sibelius, the finale of his Fifth Symphony, in which thematic fragments finally build to the wonderful chiming melody that shapes the movement. That principle is at work in Holmboe’s 1929 Concerto for Orchestra. Marked Allegretto molto pesante, the concerto also shows Holmboe’s early debt to Bartók and his use of rough-hewn folk material. (Bartók’s famous marking, Allegro barbaro, says it all.) The Concerto is a strange little work that, as Jens Cornelius’s notes suggest, isn’t really a concerto for orchestra in the sense we have come to accept—based on the examples of Bartók, Lutosławski, and others—in which the different orchestral choirs are given a workout one after another. Instead, it’s more like a concert overture, darkly brooding in typical Scandinavian late-Romantic fashion. In addition to Sibelius, there is a very direct imitation of Nielsen in the chorale-like string theme that comes about two-thirds of the way through the piece. While all three works on this program receive their world-premiere recordings, the Concerto for Orchestra is presumably getting its first-ever performance. It is, after all, a piece that Holmboe didn’t even assign an opus number to, considering it a learning experience more than anything.
It’s interesting to hear a work from the period of Holmboe’s “self-imposed apprenticeship,” especially in the company of later works that reveal the remarkable synthesis the composer forged out of the early influences on his musical style. A certain Nordic brooding still hangs over the music, perhaps, but it’s now filtered through those hard-driving neo-Classical rhythms and through the abiding influence of Bartók and Balkan folk music, which Holmboe managed to study first hand. Cornelius sites the hallmarks of these influences in the Violin Concerto (1979): “the modal melodies, the ‘Balkan time signature’ 5/4, and the soloist’s role as a fantasizing, temperamental folk-like musician. . . .” The cultivation of these influences is especially apt since the concerto was dedicated to and premiered by Hungarian Anton Kontra, concertmaster of the Copenhagen Philharmonic.
This is a very fine work, but I prefer the Viola Concerto, Holmboe’s last concerto, written in 1992, when the composer was eighty-two. It’s a vital-to-bursting piece no matter the composer’s age. Written for Israeli violist Rivka Golani, it features modal melodies with a decidedly Jewish cast to them, sounding like Ernst Bloch meets Ernst Toch with a bit of Hindemith thrown in, or something like that. Anyway, it’s more driven and dynamic than Bloch usually is in his concerted works. A number of cadenzas, short and long, allow the soloist the opportunity to expound cantorially on these tunes. Along the way, pithy interjections from percussion (drums and xylophone foremost) add to the piquancy of this admirable work. Given the quality of the two solo concertos, it’s probably safe to say there is more fine music of Holmboe that hasn’t yet appeared on disc—something to look forward to.
These performances represent a multinational effort, as we have a Swedish-born, Danish-educated violinist; a Norwegian violist; and a Russian conductor, aided and abetted by a very fine Swedish orchestra. The Norrköping Symphony, at eighty-one members, is a middling-sized band, seeming just the right size to give Holmboe’s ripe orchestrations heft yet transparency—at least that’s the impression that comes across on this very well engineered disc. The soloists are equally fine. Erik Heide, though young enough to be numbered among BBC New Generation Artists for 2004–2006, is every bit as compelling as Lars Tomter, whose career stretches back a quarter of a century and more. Both present Holmboe’s clean clear solo lines with Nordic briskness that’s anything but cold. Recommended for all admirers of well-crafted modern music.