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Dacapo - The National Music Anthology of Denmark

Format:  CD

Catalogue Number:  8.226101-02

Barcode:  636943610121

Release month:  Jun 2009

Period:  Early 20th Century


Vagn Holmboe: The Key Masterpieces

01 January 2010  Fanfare Magazine
Ronald E. Grames

I asked to review this centenary retrospective, forgetting that one of the foremost authorities on Holmboe’s music, Paul Rapoport, was a contributor to Fanfare and reviewed most, if not all, of these releases when they first appeared. So what can I possibly add to what has already been said? Appreciation, I guess, is the thing that this two-CD set is designed to encourage; certainly nothing so erudite as what can be found in Dr. Rapoport’s reviews, which interested readers are encouraged to read online.

Vagn Holmboe (1909–1996), considered by many Danes a likely successor to Carl Nielsen, is a composer worth discovering by the rest of us. Primarily a tonal composer and a neo-Classicist, he generally eschewed extravagant gesture and rich tonal palettes for finely structured works of great poise with intense feeling held below the surface: “controlled ecstasy” as he described it. Much of his inspiration came from the contemplation of nature, taking as a model for his composition organic growth and the structure of change in the life around him. He was also greatly influenced by a trip to Romania in 1933–34 during which he studied Balkan music. Its rhythms and honest strength would inform his work throughout his life, as would folk music in general and the music of Bartók in particular. Holmboe wrote over 200 works during his long life, including symphonies, string quartets, various concertos, tone poems, choral works, and an opera. Such a vast catalog makes any overview such as this an exercise in regretted exclusion, but given only two discs, the selections are intelligently made.

Requiem for Nietzsche, a large piece for orchestra, chorus, and two soloists, takes up the majority of disc 2. One of Holmboe’s most fascinating works, it is uncharacteristically avant-garde in its occasional choral aleatory, speaking, shouting, whispering, and other dramatic effects. Otherwise, it is not musically daunting, rather on the order of Shostakovich’s work of that time (1963–64) or Britten’s War Requiem. What Nietzsche would have made of a personal Requiem that imagines him resting with God is not easy to guess. Ecce homo, indeed. Is this a critique of the philosopher’s nihilism or an appreciation of his life and a dirge for his madness? Is Nietzsche Jesus’ tempter in the wilderness? Does Zoroaster passing Nietzsche by in his cave prefigure his demise? It is a splendid mystery— as is the source, Thorkild Bjørnvig’s 11 Nietzsche sonnets—but a magnificently dramatic work. It is currently only available in this collection, a powerful recommendation in itself.

The program begins with one of Holmboe’s last works from a series of 10 tone poems, called preludes, dedicated to elements of nature. “To the Seagulls and the Cormorants” is a gentle, impressionistic work full of shimmering sea and birds in flight. The Chamber Concerto No. 2 is a relatively early work from 1940. One of 13 such pieces written under the Balkan influence, this one for flute, violin, strings, and percussion alternates good-humored vigor with exquisite lyricism and a mysterious nocturnal evocation. Nuigan (“Now again”) is Holmboe’s second piano trio. A work of his maturity (1976), it uses the folk idiom with rather more sophistication, deconstructing it at times, but never losing its essence.

None of the 13 symphonies are included, so Holmboe’s substantial contribution to this form is represented by the first of four string sinfonias, works that he later combined into one symphonic work named Chairos. Darker and more intense than anything heard before, Sinfonia No. 1 is absolute music of great concision, emotional depth, and power. Both it and the following Solo Cello Sonata are middle period works. The virtuosic Sonata starts, as one almost must in this form, with a large nod to J. S. Bach. Bartók is there too, in the second movement, but so is late-Romantic Schoenberg, with Gypsy music to round out the third. Deeply felt as these works are, though, it is in his string quartets that Holmboe, like many composers, makes his most personal statements. The Fourth, like its 20 siblings, is written with classical economy and clarity—a testimony to the composer’s lifelong admiration for Haydn’s music—with intense emotions the more powerful for the expressive restraint. This quartet writing stands with modern masters of the genre like Shostakovich and Bartók.

This release boasts brief but informative notes and uniformly fine sound. Paul Rapoport was not always uncritical in his assessments of these performances. For instance, he found some of the preludes performances lacking in subtlety and he preferred the more lyrical approach of the Copenhagen String Quartet to the Kontra Quartet here. I must say, though, that as a listener without the long years of association with the composer, these all seem marvelous performances that brought me much pleasure. As an introduction to the world of Vagn Holmboe, this set probably couldn’t be bettered. Be prepared to be delighted.!

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