Vagn Holmboe: Concertos
29 May 2013
Classical Lost and Found
Bob McQuistonA prolific composer who wrote music of consistently high quality
, many of Danish-born Vagn Holmboe’s (1909–1996) works have only recently made their silver disc debuts, e.g., his chamber symphonies, which appeared just a few months ago. Now Dacapo gives us a new hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.0), release with world premiere recordings of three concertos composed at the beginning and ending of his career. Like the rest of Holmboe’s oeuvre, they are rigorously compact, sinewy works that incorporate his principle of thematic metamorphosis, and grow on you with each listening. Back in the 1940’s he penned thirteen chamber concertos, the fifth being for viola (1943, currently unavailable on disc). But he wouldn’t compose the full-scale one that’s the first selection on this disc until a few years before his death. Completed in 1992 and in two movements, it would be the last of his many concertos.
The first movement is a powerful allegro [track-1] that starts with a unifying, drum-pounding motif (UD) [00:00], which wouldn’t be too far out of place in Stravinsky’s (1882–1971) Rite of Spring (1911–3). The viola then enters with an imploring cadenza [00:25], and is joined by the orchestra [01:21] in a transitional passage ending with a reminder of UD [01:35]. A sophisticated development with a folk dancelike episode follows [02:43], and after another reference to UD [04:51], the movement ends peacefully with traces of same.
The next one [track-2] is in three sections, follows a fast-slow-fast schema, and begins energetically with soloist plus tutti stating a couple of memorable themes. The Dies Irae once again surfaces (see the Fuchs Falling Canons above) as the source for the last of these ideas [02:49]—maybe the composer was having “intimations of mortality” – which ends the first section along with hints of UD.
After a pause the second one opens with an extended rhapsodic cadenza for the viola [03:18-06:02], whose last note is taken up by the strings. Soloist and tutti turn this into a moving elegy followed by another caesura and the final section [09:22]. This has an animated UD-like beginning succeeded by a metamorphic development of previous motifs with some endearing “celestal” ornaments. The closing measures have the viola playing an extended note, but a couple of UD-like shots ring out from the orchestra, and it quickly expires ending the concerto dispassionately.
Say “concerto for orchestra,” and classical music lovers inevitably think of Bartok’s (1881–1945) from 1943. But there were several before that, beginning with Hindemith’s (1895–1963) pioneering effort of 1925 and Holmboe’s written in 1929, which believe it or not receives its first performance here! More of an overture than a concerto, it’s in a single sonata form movement [track-3] that begins with a reserved chorale-like melody (RC) for the strings [00:00]. This is soon reinforced by brass and percussion [00:15] auguring the fanfares in Walton’s (1902–1983) Belshazzar’s Feast (1930–1). The elaboration that’s next gives way to a subdued section with some soothing pastoral thoughts (SP) [02:15]. A metamorphic development first involving RC [04:35] and then SP [07:44] follows. Finally strings and brass announce a powerful recapitulation [11:00], which ends the work definitively. There’s a youthful abandon that makes the piece instantly appealing.
The program closes with Holmboe’s second violin concerto (1979) written for Hungarian virtuoso Anton Kontra (b. 1932), who founded the Kontra String Quartet. This along with the composer’s interest in Eastern European folk music (his wife was Romanian) undoubtedly explain the work’s Magyar melodic and rhythmic leanings. In two movements the first [track-4] is severe with Bartokian themes, and another of the composer’s intricately crafted developments. There are some brief bravura fiddle passages just before it ends in tears.
The next one [track-5] begins with an autumnal pastoral passage for horn and violin soon warmed by the winds. A dialogue between soloist and orchestra leads into a delicate cadenza [05:46-07:02]. Then there’s a brief pause and an upward flourish on the violin [07:02] introducing the kinetic finale [07:09]. The most virtuosic part of the concerto, this is a rondo-like roundup of previous motifs that ends the work whimsically with more “celestal” touches.
Norwegian violist Lars Anders Tomter and Swedish violinst Erik Heide have the measure of their respective concertos, delivering technically exquisite, sensitive performances of them. There’s no sign of that intonational queasiness frequently associated with the viola.
Russian conductor Dima Slobodenouck puts the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra through its paces, providing the soloists with ideal support. They also give an outstanding, dynamic interpretation of the concerto for orchestra.
Danish orchestral recordings over the past couple of years have been among the best, and this one is no exception! Made at the Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping, Sweden, the stereo tracks project a generous soundstage in a warm acoustic. The orchestral image is sharply focused revealing all the detail of Holmboe’s pragmatic scoring. An ideal balance between the soloists and orchestra is maintained throughout.
The instrumental timbre is very musical in all three play modes with clear bright highs and deep tight bass. Some may find the string tone more natural on the SACD tracks, and the multichannel one will put you in a front orchestra seat. By all means take this disc along on your next audio safari.