Vagn Holmboe: The Complete String Quartets
19 September 2010
While not quite a Villa-Lobos or Martinu in terms of prolific production the Danish composer Vagn Holmboe was no slouch. If we leave out of the reckoning the 3000 trees he personally planted on his estate by lake Arresø between 1939 and 1996 there are some 400 musical works; still a lot less than his equally fascinating countryman, Niels Viggo Bentzon.
Those 400 entries in his catalogue include 13 symphonies and much else. The string quartet is a superficially severe and ascetic medium if marginally less so than the string trio or sonata for solo violin. Even so Holmboe’s twenty quartets are masterly examples, modelled on Haydn, carrying a Bartok inflection and irradiated with a sense of the natural world. The present recordings were initially in circulation on individual Dacapo CDs in the 1990s and early 2000s. They never had much more than a modest profile. With this set, now alluringly priced, documented and packaged, comes a chance to discover them in performances of great accomplishment and dedication.
I have known these works and these recordings or many of them since 1998 when I first explored these works via the Dacapo individual discs. Before that I knew a smattering of the quartets from broadcasts. To hear the whole span in a concentrated way leaves the listener in awe.
The First Quartet was premiered in Copenhagen by the Erling Bloch quartet who were also its dedicatees. The long hoarse and gaunt viola solo makes way for a passage of fleet-footed and winged ecstasy from 3:28 onwards. It’s all rather reminiscent of 1930s Tippett. The folkloristic side of Kodaly and Bartok asserts itself in lunar serenity in the second movement. The Stravinskian fff scrunches of the finale launch a passionately lit ballad which ends in Tippettian half-light, a gentle Hovhaness-like moaning slide and a final convulsion. There were ten quartets before this one written at the age of 40.
The Third Quartet is in five movements and is dedicated to the Koppel Quartet who premiered it in 1950. The work shines with folksy highland mists and skips with vitality. 1930s Tippett again leaps to mind. The final Lento returns to the pensive darkness of the beginning but now drained of violence and fading into a haze of harmonics.
After two works from 1949 comes the Fourth Quartet. These five movements speak a new complexity. This is interlaced with cobwebbed Mendelssohnian flights (II) and fugal severity. It’s touched with dissonance as well as optimism (V).
The Second Quartet has a rocking pastoral motion with thoughtful asides along the way. It's about the same length as its predecessor. It's a magical piece which ends magically too. With the Tenth and Seventeenth (at either side of 26 minutes) kicking the trend the length of the quartets gradually reduced over the years.
The Fifth Quartet (1955) is in three movements - the first in singing polyphony soused in Kodaly-like juices, the second a self-mesmerising essay in confidences and the third a scorching Energico – part-Bartok, part-Tippett.
The Sixth Quartet from 1961 is more severe not that this stops the central Molto Vivace from being full of caustic vitality. A sense of austere fugal progress can be felt in the Adagio e piano (III). There’s then an urgent needle-sharp rhythmic Allegro spiritoso in which refreshing dynamic contrast invigorates and projects.
From 1964 onwards almost all Holmboe’s music in this medium quartet was premiered by the Copenhagen Quartet. The first example was the Seventh Quartet (1964-65). It begins with a Tempo Giusto (not Guisto as on p.4 of the booklet – several; occurrences of this typo). This movement is dominated by dissonance but often retreats into a delicately diaphanous weave of melodic tendrils, buzzing and singing. The second movement returns to the singing predilections of the Second Quartet readying your mind for the largely calm vulnerability of the finale which ends in a flurry.
The Eighth Quartet followed hot on the heels of the Seventh. It's in five movements and its manner touches on Bartok with much dragonfly shimmering and a remarkable midnight-flighted Presto e volante robusto. The finale is caustic and angular ending with a passionate harmonic scrunch.
The Ninth Quartet was completed in 1966 and revised three years later when he wrote and completed the Tenth. In this sense it is like the Nineteenth Quartet (1982 rev. 1985). Its manner is grave indeed, almost Bachian and even when the melodic flow is warm emotion is held in check. The final Andante tranquillo is also reserved approaching severe.
The Tenth Quartet is amongst the longest of the quartets. The music is tough and searching yet has time for the equivalent of the Barber Adagio in the second of the work's two movements. It ends in a passionate blizzard of activity and a self-denying yet confident pizzicato.
The Eleventh Quartet Rustico op. 111 dates from 1971. This recalls the chattering figuration of Nielsen's Fifth Symphony (a rare enough echo for Holmboe) but also deploys birdsong. There's fearful uncertainty too as well as peaceable meditation and a toweringly confident and exuberant rustic Allegro brioso.
The Twelfth Quartet (1973) has the incisive mordancy of a Herrmann film score with strings massed and intimidatingly urgent. After a disconcertingly brief Adagio e tranquillo we come to a breeze-shivering Allegro con fuoco neatly flighted by the Kontra.
The Thirteenth Quartet begins in a Pendereckian wash of sound. By now the composer had arrived at 1975. The music dances or meditates in a delicate dream state. The music is spiky yet joyful like the Wicca magic in Warlock's Curlew: a delightfully complex interweave of lines.
The Fourteenth Quartet of the same year is unsurprisingly out of a similar style-set. Those Hovhaness violin wailings in miniature add fascination. A breathlessly feral bustle takes us back to a collision between the Moeran quartets and Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra. A gloriously joyous pizzicato miniature Allegro is wonderfully put across by the players and engineers. This precedes a euphoric Allegro vivace.
Two years were to elapse before Holmboe started the Fifteenth Quartet which he completed in 1978. This is a very concise work of just over 16 minutes and four movements. There 's a skirling swirling Poco allegro and a piercing and stridulating Allegro molto. The stern and caustic Funebre is heavy with tragedy and suggests some affinity with Bloch's semitic style. The finale is an ecstatic pell-mell interspersed with contemplative spells.
The Seventeenth Quartet is the Mattinata of 1982-83. It's in six movements as are 17-20; 2-4, 8-9, 12-13 are in five. The music rushes, sighs and smiles. It has a continuing lark-kinship with the pastoral muse many fans of British music will respond to - especially those who love their instrumental RVW, Howells and Hadley. The finale Allegro rigoroso turns away from those green realms at first but soon finds its woodland bearings again. The piece ends in a series of brusque gestures col legno.
The Nineteenth Quartet is the Serata of 1982, revised 1985. It comprises six succinct movements. These are a shade tougher that No. 17 and reminded me a little of a spikily acidic Vivaldi and heavily freighted with dissonance.
The Twentieth Quartet (1985) also bears a title Notturno which again points up the Bartok connection. The piece is full of dissentient life in the odd-numbered movements. The final Allegro espansivo has a hoarse ostinato which mingles with other coursing slow or post-haste lines each full of intrinsic satisfaction.
And so to the seventh and final disc of the set.
The Sixteenth Quartet (1981) ripples with unruly Tippett-like energy. It deftly combines that open air vitality and brusque disarming confidence we now recognise as such a character trait in Holmboe. This is the last of the quartets to adopt the conventional four movement template. The others are 6, 11 and 15; very few out of a tally of twenty or so.
The Eighteenth Quartet Giornata (1982). Here the music buzzes, whispers and skirls across the six movements. The fourth movement Allegro brioso returns us to rural scurrying and insect-flight with perhaps a dash of Vivaldi's full-throated vitality.
The year 1992 saw the appearance of the eleven episode string quartet work, Sværm. It is full of fantastic character sketches as if Holmboe were striving to leave a series of concise sound-portraits of friends. Thoughtful. bucolic, grotesque, pizzicato subterfuge, troubadour serenades and furious hive activity - it's all there.
The Quartetto Sereno is unofficially his Twenty-First. It lay unfinished when Holmboe died in 1996. Per Norgard, one of Holmboe's most distinguished pupils, was to finish the piece from a score finished in all its major aspects. The work is dedicated to Holmboe's wife, Meta May Holmboe and was premiered by the Kontras in 1997 in Odense. The Sereno is a complex piece in mercurial kaleidoscopic motion. A Ravel-like carillon-pizzicato launches another winged Allegro finale enriched by austerity and pained and pleading lyricism (II, 2:30).
A minor criticism is that the card sleeves inside the wallet-format box do not list contents - unfortunate if the card wallet ever succumbs to wear or damage.
This set is unique and seems unlikely to face any competition for the foreseeable future. It stands as a monument alongside the quartets of Simpson, Milhaud, Weinberg and Villa-Lobos. Its existence also kindles some hope that perhaps in ten years time we will see boxed sets of the complete symphonies of Bentzon and Hovhaness.
Holmboe’s quartets are one of the great treasures of the last century and one that should endure for as long as audiences have even the slightest of grip on an attention span.