Concertos beyond time and space by Jens Cornelius
Vagn 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. Inevitably, this also means that some works may be unjustifiably overlooked. The situation surrounding his many solo concertos is particularly confusing, partly because there are solo concertos among the almost 80 works that the young Holmboe composed before his first official opus 1, and partly because most of Holmboe's 13 "chamber concertos" from the 1940s are in reality solo con-certos - simply with a small orchestral ensemble.
The special status of the chamber concertos has paradoxically overshadowed Holm-boe's larger solo concertos. Such is the case for example with the two solo concertos on this CD, which have never been recorded before.
Concerto for Viola, op. 189
Holmboe had also written a concertante viola work - the Fifth Chamber Concerto from 1943 - long before he composed his "proper" Viola Concerto. He wrote the latter at the age of 82 as the last of his many solo concertos. It is a dynamic, spontaneous work full of infectious, vital music.
The Viola Concerto was written especially for the Israeli virtuoso Rivka Golani, who had given Holmboe's Solo Sonata for Viola its first performance three years previously. And it sounds as if Holmboe is sending musical greetings to his soloist on this occasion too. The first movement of the Viola Concerto is framed by a striking Jewish-tinged theme that is presented right from the beginning by the orchestra. After this motto-like theme the soloist plays a reci-ta-tive over the same scale. In the development section of the movement Holmboe interpolates a passage typified by folk-dance rhythms. After this the motto and the solo motif return before the movement ends sophisticatedly with a slow, very quiet string version of the formerly so powerful motto.
The second movement takes a rhapsodic form that grows out of the violist's dual role as both player and cantor as presented in the first movement. It begins with a fiery scherzo section that merges directly into a great solo cadenza where the viola comes into its own with its special capacity for the elegiac. The orchestra follows the soloist with an Andante, where the solo motif from the first movement appears again before the tempo is speeded up in a last passage and gives the work an ending that is as impactful as its introduction.
The Viola Concerto is one of the works of Holmboe's old age where one can hear his eternal joy in the roots of music: dance, song, folk music and the collective spirit that he had experienced so strongly at the beginning of the 1930s in the Balkans.
Concerto for Orchestra
From Vagn Holmboe's self-imposed apprenticeship up to 1935, when he composed prolifically without giving a single work the imprimatur of an opus number, his Concerto for Orchestra from 1929 emerges. This neoclassical genre had been "invented" just four years previously by the German composer Paul Hindemith, and Holmboe's work is presumably the first concerto for orchestra written after Hindemith's. The famous concertos by Bartók, Kodály and Lutoslawski only came more than a decade later.
After two very early attempts to write a symphony, Holmboe appears to have dropped the idea of such an old-fashioned type of test piece and instead turned his antennae towards the new German music of the period. Holmboe had still not been abroad (not until the next year did he go to Berlin to study further) and he probably only knew of Hindemith's work from music periodicals or through his teacher Finn Høffding, who was strongly influenced by the Neue Sachlichkeit of the 1920s.
Curiously, Holmboe's piece on the whole has nothing but the title in common with Hinde--mith's. Holmboe's Concerto for Orchestra is not in the least concertante in form and is not a concerto grosso, rather an overture or symphonic first movement. Perhaps the title is in reality simply an expression of the language of a young artist in 1929?
Holmboe's lack of experience in writing for orchestra explains the atypical instrumen--tation with heavy percussion and brass. This helps to give the Concerto for -Orchestra even more of the dark pathos that is so typical of the northern European -music of the ominous pre-war years.
The piece adopts a traditional sonata form where the hymn-like first subject grows out of a slow introduction. A quiet interlude presents a number of brief motifs that do not gather into a whole until the music returns to the initial tempo and presents a solid subject in the low strings. The music culminates in an effective bitonal passage that recalls Carl Nielsen's exotic music for the play Aladdin. More Nielsen inspiration can be heard in the -fugato chorale theme that is interpolated before the recapitulation, and in general the use of polyphony demonstrates great admiration for Denmark's major composer, who had been Holmboe's examiner at his admis-sion audition for the Royal Danish Academy of Music.
As far as is known, this recording is the first performance ever of the work. Holmboe later wrote several orchestral concertos in the true neoclassical sense, but no more with this particular genre title.
Concerto for Violin no. 2, op. 139
The masterly Violin Concerto no. 2 from 1979 is Holmboe in fully fledged classical form. It is written with great gusto and orchestrated with razor-sharp precision within a traditional frame-work with three movements and a concertante dialogue between soloist and orchestra.
Despite the numbering, Violin Concerto no. 2 is Holmboe's "true" violin concerto. Besides Chamber Concerto no. 6 for violin and chamber orchestra there is also an early violin concerto no. 1 from 1938, which has never been performed.
The Violin Concerto was composed in a period when Holmboe was particularly interested in solo concertos. Holmboe has aptly been called a "composer of series" because in some periods he concentrated on particular genres. Just as his music grows up organically and branches into new shoots, his work with it often generated new ideas for another work in the same genre. In the mid-1970s the results were a cello concerto, a recorder concerto, a tuba concerto, two flute concertos and this violin concerto.
The Violin Concerto was written for the Hungarian violinist Anton Kontra, who had moved to Denmark in 1965 and become well known as the concertmaster of the Copenhagen Philharmonic and first violin in the Kontra Quartet, which gave so many of -Holmboe's string quartets their first performance. In the Violin Concerto Holmboe pays tribute to the Hungarian soloist by combining his own purist Nordic style with a grand declaration of love for the wilder music from Hungary and the Balkans. Holmboe was married to the Romanian-born pianist Meta Graf and as a young man he had studied the folk music of the Balkans. The tradition from there - and not least the influence that filtered through Bartók - left its imprint on him throughout his life, and in the violin concerto the inspiration is clear: the modal melodies, the "Balkan time signature" 5/4, and the soloist's role as a fantasizing, temperamental folk-like musician, espe-cially as it unfolds in the last movement.
Along the way there are many nods to the classical concerto tradition that goes all the way back to Beethoven and Mendelssohn. But as usual Holmboe's use of the heritage is quite free of stylistic imitations. The connection with the classics is not reactionary, it is exclusively about situating the music beyond time and space.
Jens Cornelius, 2013