Vagn Holmboe: Chamber Music (II)
11 April 2013
International Record Review
Prolific composers are going to rely on their craftsmanship to some extent, which with some of them can give rise to the danger that, to adapt Bernard Levin's profoundly mistaken criticism of Reger, their capacity for saying things outstrips their stock of things to say. Vagn Holmboe was an enormously productive composer - Paul Rapoport 's The Compositions of Vagn Holmboe (Wilhelm Hansen, Copenhagen; 1966) counts 368 works - and he undoubtedly relied on a surefire technique to generate as much music as he did. But even though his facility is audible (his music, so to speak, spreads straight from the fridge), there's something in it which is essential: the very first bars of Eco, the 1991 trio for clarinet, cello and piano which opens this excellent anthology of mixed chamber pieces with winds, has a tension which directs the music forwards. He was in his early eighties when he wrote this piece but it is hardly the music of an old man: the good-natured energy that bubbles through the closing 'Andante' is anchored in something tougher and soberer. It 's followed by the quarter-hour Wind Quintet of 1957, audibly downstream from Nielsen's in its amiable and relaxed counterpoint, all five movements built - without a hint of academicism - around a horn motif announced at the beginning; here, too, its generally sunny disposition quietly informed by something darker.
In the midst of all this woodwind tone Holmboe’s Sonata for Violoncello Solo of 1968-69 offers refreshing aural relief. His only work for solo cello (he wrote more for guitar), it adopts a conversational manner, spinning out the music naturally, like a seasoned storyteller. Jens Cornelius’s notes make much of its twin heritage: Bach, for obvious reasons, and the Balkans, since he and his Romanian wife, Meta, travelled through the Balkans in 1933-34, at the time of their marriage, with Holmboe, always keenly interested in folk music, noting down what he heard around him. But the folk-influence here is indirect, more a question of rhythmic cells than entire melodic lines.
The Quartetto Medico for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano, from 1956, was written for four doctors who were amateur musicians, which explains the gentle nature of much of the music, and the jokes in the movement titles: the first is ‘Andante medicamento’, the second ‘Andante febrile’, third ‘Intermedico I: Andante senza pianisticitis’, fourth a piano solo ‘Intermedico II: (sans marais)’ and finally an ‘Allegro con fragula’ – one of the players was called Mose (‘marsh’ in Danish, or ‘marais’ in French) so he can’t have been the pianist, and frangula is a laxative, which, as Cornelius says, explains the smooth flow of the music.
The 1973 Sextet which closes the disc, for the unusual combination of string trio and woodwind trio (why unusual? One would have thought it a more frequent palette), is the most explicitly neo-classical of all the works here – which, in view of Holmboe’s reliance on the old-fashioned virtues of counterpoint and clarity, is the general flavour of the disc as a whole. I’ve never heard Holmboe’s music suggest Poulenc’s as often as it does here, although the brittle humour which can pall so swiftly in Poulenc is kept on a short leash: the strength of purpose which attends virtually everything Holmboe wrote ensures that sentimentality has no room here; indeed, the central ‘Andante cantabile’, which sounds as if it has a degree of canonic activity at its centre, is nearly bleak in its lack of demonstration. The last movement incorporates a freewheeling fugue that, like much else on this disc, suggests an awareness of the natural world; in this instance you can almost hear the seagulls.
The performances strike me as idiomatic and confident, the relaxed manner suiting the affable disposition of much of the music. It may be that more forceful readings would show a different side to some of it, but I fear we would have to wait a long time, and gratitude is the more apposite response in the short term. The recording is as clear as Holmboe’s textures. His personality radiated a fundamental integrity, and there’s no more artefact in the music than there was in the man. The single word that best describes it? Honest.