Vagn Holmboe: Chamber Music (I)
18 April 2012
Ronald E. Grames
Through the efforts of two labels in particular, Dacapo and BIS, a great deal of Vagn Holmboe’s large compositional output has found its way onto disc in superb releases. We have all of the symphonies (BIS), the string quartets (Dacapo), plus various concertos, the chamber concertos, the sinfonias, brass music, choral music (though a bit harder to find), and more. Less well represented is his non-string quartet chamber music. Dacapo is now seeking to remedy that with a series devoted to recordings of these too rarely performed—and for the most part unrecorded—works. I couldn’t be more thrilled. This is music of intense feeling held mostly below the surface, works of understated joy and veiled melancholy, watercolors where others might have painted in oils. It is music that develops in the rhythms and cycles of the composer’s beloved nature; metamorphosis is the composer’s name for the complex way in which he evolves themes, colors, harmony, and rhythmic patterns without traditional formal structure. His music is tonal—modal, usually—though occasionally intense dissonance is used creatively; it is never conventional, and it is always deeply moving and intellectually satisfying.
The five disparate works here were seemingly chosen to demonstrate the breadth of Holmboe’s creative impulse. These range from the lively and impulsive Primavera (1951) for flute, violin, cello, and piano with its tribute to the Nordic spring, to the darker folk-inspired Ballata (1984) for piano quartet, which shows the profound influence of Holmboe’s travels to southeastern Europe and his admiration of Bartók. Primavera is the first of several works here to include a prominent flute. It was written for Holger Gilbert-Jespersen, the virtuoso for whom Nielsen wrote his concerto. So was the Sonata for Solo Flute (1957), an amazing quarter-hour four-movement work in which Holmboe seamlessly integrates folk influences, Impressionism, an amazing Bach-like fugue for one instrument, and an homage to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.
A third work for flute, the quartet (1966) for flute, violin, viola, and cello, comes at the end of the period when, with the encouragement of younger colleagues, he most experimented with modernist techniques. It is intense, concentrated, and chromatic at times, but somehow never denies the essential Arcadian qualities of the instrument or the organic logic and clarity of the composer’s compositional voice. Rounding out the quintet of works is Gioco (1983), an Italianate serenade in which the “game” is the many surprises the composer offers along the way. The scherzo-like opening occasionally gives way to a more northern melancholy; the second movement sketches a pastoral portrait of rural northeast Denmark, and his estate, Arre Boreale. A very formal and somber Adagio follows, but quickly returns to the bouncy rhythms and sunny disposition of the beginning, now however harmonically tinged with the sadness of that slow movement. The abrupt end to the dance is unsettling and emotionally ambiguous. One cannot help feeling that much about the man in his later years is revealed in this work.
“Holmboe’s music is new because you may hear much more in it the more you listen to it, study it, perform it, discuss it,” said Paul Rapoport in his Fanfare 20:4 review of the complete symphony set. The more I hear of Holmboe’s work—always new yet always able to touch the soul as something profoundly familiar—the more convinced I am that he is among the greatest composers of the 20th century. He is an artist whose work every serious classical collector should know. The symphonies are a logical starting place for the many who are attracted to larger-scale works, and the string quartets deserve the same attention given the great 20th-century cycles of Bartók and Shostakovich. But for those drawn to the more modest forms and instrumental combinations, Holmboe’s many virtues are compellingly presented in this new release. The 11 young soloists of the Danish MidtVest Ensemble—a string quartet, a wind quintet, and a pianist—are uniformly excellent. This promises to be an edition to treasure.