Vagn Holmboe: The Complete String Quartets
01 January 2011
International Record Review
Vagn Holmboe 1909-1996 - Complete String
Quartets on Dacapo
Among the significant cycles of string quartets from the post-war era, that by Danish composer Vagn Holmboe is one of the most substantial surveying, even more than the symphonies (available on BIS CD843/46), the course of his maturity - a cycle, too, under-represented on disc before the Kontra Quartet took up its cause. Founded in 1973 by redoubtable Hungarian emigre Anton Kontra, the ensemble made these recordings between 1992 and 2000.
Following its collation of the Hamerik and Langgaard symphonies (reviewed last January), Dacapo has now reissued the Holmboe quartets. The packaging - with each disc housed in a card sleeve - is simple but stylish, while the (uncredited) booklet notes offer a comprehensive if not consistently edited overview. The sound, just a little confined on the first two discs, is otherwise deal in its focus and clarity. His ten 'pre-First' quartets (only one of which was ever publicly performed) notwithstanding, Holmboe had written the first six of his 13 symphonies by the time of his First Quartet (1949). This stands firmly in the lineage of Bartók, with a first movement where the slow introduction is fused into a sonata-allegro, and whose development and reprise are then collapsed into a single span. The second movement treats its underlying idea to a systematic acceleration then deceleration of tempo, while the finale's imposing introduction crowns this otherwise energetic movement in a decisive conclusion. The Second and Third Quartets (both 1949) are in five movements. The former flanks a tensile Presto with one of Holmboe's most appealing slow movements and a recitative-like intermezzo, framed by an ingratiating Andante and a propulsive finale: the latter frames it s ruminative chaconne with two tensely argued movements flanked by a sustained Lento and another that eloquently brings the work full circle .
Holmboe returned to the genre after his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. Likewise in five movements, the Fourth Quartet (1954, dedicated to Holmboe's pupil Per Nørgård) abandons Bartókian symmetry in a work dominated by slow or moderate tempos - the Adagio's fugal poise being in contrast with a vibrant preceding Presto and searching initial Andante; the fourth movement functioning as a lead - in to the (hardly serene!) closing Allegretto.
The Sixth Quartet (1955) follows on from the Sinfonia in memoriam; whereas that piece represents the end of a phase, the quartet marks the onset of the 'metamorphosis' :thinking through which Holmboe secured a fresh approach to symphonic cohesion, its three movements centred on a process of organic development that overrides the nominal fast-slow-fast format. The Sixth Quartet (1961) also draws it s four movements into an unfolding unity in which the combative opening alternation of Lento and Allegro , followed by a tensile scherzo, is complemented by an ethereal Adagio and deceptively resolute finale.
By the time of the Seventh Quartet (1965 first performed by the Copenhagen Quartet, which premiered all but three of the remaining quartets), Danish music was in one of its most volatile phases - with many younger composers questioning the validity of traditional abstract forms. The present work can be seen as a positive riposte, its intricately motivic opening movement followed by an angular scherzo, then the large-scale finale with it s powerfully Nielsenesque tempo relationships. If the fivemovement works (a format shared with the succeeding Ninth Symphony) that follow seem less ambitious, their effectiveness as integrated structures is undoubted. The Eighth Quartet (1965) parallels Bartók' s Fifth in placing its brusque Presto between two luminous Andantes, which are themselves framed by compact Allegros.
The Ninth Quartet (1966) parallels Bartók's Fourth in placing it s seamless Adagio between two lively scherzos which are framed by two Andantes - the former as much a quixotic epigraph as the latter is a poised epilogue. In both of these pieces, the variety of playing techniques enriches the musical texture. By the close of the decade, Danish music had passed through it s main period of crisis, though the continued relevance of the older generation was by no means secure. Holmboe responded with arguably his two greatest instrumental works - the Tenth Quartet (1969) and Tenth Symphony (1971). The former is his only quartet in two movements, but this Nielsenlike division partially conceals a fluid motivic transformation and tempo modulation that make for a single overarching span. Although the next two quartets are not without formal and expressive surprises, both are more modest in their dimensions and ambitions. The Eleventh Quartet (1972, sometimes referred to as 'Rustica') is Holmboe's most personal take on the four-movement format, its pithy outer Allegros flanking an unpredictable scherzo-cum intermezzo and elusive Andant. The Twelfth Quartet (1973) returns to five movements: the first and fourth comprise a fast- slow and slowfast duality with those proceeding them, with the central Allegro both a formal fulcrum and motivic nexus.
Holmboe's quartet output continued unabated: the Thirteenth (1975) is the last in five movements, though, again, its first two movements pursue a gradual accumulation of energy and intensity, as do the ensuing three movements in terms of their Adagio-Andante-Allegro progression. The Fourteenth Quartet (1975) is the first to consist of six movements - the central four of them falling into a 'double duo' by turns complementary and contrasting, leaving a somnolent initial Andante to be balanced by an implacable closing Allegro. The next two works resort to four movements: after its brief initial two movements, the Fifteenth Quartet (1978) is notable for a plangent 'Funèbre' (the only 'evocative' title in Holmboe's quartet output) proceeded by a finale of sustained rhetorical import. Although from the following decade (and post-dating the formally subtle Thirteenth Symphony), the Sixteenth Quartet (1981) is the shortest and outwardly most classical - which does not prevent each movement from picking up motivically on its predecessor in a deftly composite whole.
The final four quartets (the first three composed in 1982 and the last in 1985) form a distinct series in that their subtitles outline a 'morning-day-evening-night' entity - allied to which, their consisting of six movements implies a 24-hour follow-through. The fact, however, that the subtitles were not decided upon until performance mitigates placing too great an emphasis on their temporal succession. Outwardly, these quartets unfold as a sequence of Baroque-like contrasts in mood and tempo, though a tendency for movements to form contrasting pairs and complementary trios suggests a formal and expressive unity hardly less intensive than in most of those before them. No. 17, Mattinata, is the most diverse; No. 18, Giornata, the most ingratiating; No. 19, Serata, the most elusive and No. 20, Notturno, the most
affecting. Heard as a 90 minute entity, they make for a distilled overview of Holmboe's quartet contribution.
The Twelfth and Thirteenth Symphonies were to follow, along with a Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (his last completed work). In 1992, Holmboe arranged his collection of violin duos entitled Swarm for string quartet - the 12 pieces continuing from the previous four quartets in a sequence of brusque contrasts that unfolds with typical inevitability. The Kontra Quartet gave the first performance in 1997 - when it also premiered Qyartettoserene (1996), on which Holmboe was working at his death and which has been sensitively realized by Nørgård. At barely nine minutes, the piece (dedicated to his wife Meta) may have been intended as Quartet No. 21 and may well be incomplete, yet there is nothing provisional about its elegiac Adagio making way for a capricious Allegro: the latter moving out of earshot, as if acknowledging that continuity between past and present emblematic of Vagn Holmboe's musical legacy