Vagn Holmboe: Solo and Chamber Works for Guitar
18 March 2013
Vagn Holmboe never did things by halves. Once he set himself on a course of chamber concertos, string quartets or guitar music nothing deflected him until he felt he had run the gauntlet of options and techniques. None of this music dates from before 1979 when he was 70 at which point he set off exploring the guitar first purely soloistically then in an ensemble on and off for the next 13 years.
This is the first complete disc of Holmboe's guitar works but back in 1983 the earliest of the works that is the two sonatas and Intermezzi appeared on LP played by Maria Kammerling. It hasn't been a record that I've often played although I mostly love Holmboe's music. To a certain extent I felt that these late works did little more than simply tread water, playing with those eastern European scales which are commonly found in Holmboe's music and which he studied as a young man in Rumania and Hungary.
The First Sonata falls into five movements and is the longest work on the disc. It has a central skilfully written fugato and ends in a highly rhythmic Rondo. One feels that Holmboe is to a certain extent feeling his way in this work whereas in the Second Sonata, written immediately afterwards, he is more succinct and the lines have a greater cantabile feel. In addition he only offers us Italian terms, more classically - as Per Rasmussen says in his detailed booklet notes - orientated movements opening with a moderato and ending with a spikey Allegro. The First Sonata has passages which appear to me to be note-spinning. As much as I love Holmboe's music and indeed have known it for over thirty years, as a prolific composer one expects that there will passages and indeed pieces that just mark time. The Second Sonata however seems more compact and in fact more organically composed. Technically it is more in the style of Holmboe's better known chamber music and symphonies although the sound-world of these two sonatas is very similar.
The LP, despite its warm sound, rather short-changed the buyer with less than forty minutes of music. Maria Kammerling also included the Five Intermezzi compiled two years after the sonatas. The wonderful Eleventh Symphony appearing in between. Kammerling's performance has vitality and strength but then so has this new one although I rather prefer the former. You might wonder why Holmboe didn't name it ‘Sonata 3'. I suspect that it might be because the last movement, which is the longest, is actually based around a Spanish lullaby melody. Also, with its use of percussive effects, the composer probably felt a sort of disparity between the five sections. At any rate in theory you could play just one Intermezzo alone but there is some interlinking of material and a decided homogeneity.
Using the guitar as an ensemble instrument was the next development. Before going on to the next work chronologically, we can move to 1988 and meet Parlare del Piu del Meno, (‘To talk about this and that') his last solo guitar piece. By then Holmboe had honed down his language even more as he did in the Twelfth Symphony. This five movement suite packs much into its ten minutes. It's an attractive work but does not take Holmboe's guitar writing much further except for the very flexible time signatures and an ingenious final fugue.
The ideas assembled for the Duo Concertato are evenly split between the guitar and violin. Each of the three parts is initially marked liberamente, which segue - bet you can't hear the join! - first into an Andantino, next an Andante con moto (vintage Holmboe) and finally an Allegro con brio. Chippings from the workshop, yes, but each perfectly formed.
I mentioned at the top of this review that Holmboe had an interest in folk music. This applied throughout his long life, so that the last two works, both for recorder and guitar, are inspired by folk melodies. The Canto e Danza,as the title implies, uses a Spanish melody. Perhaps Holmboe, living in cold Northern climes had a hankering for sunny Mediterranean air. The main tune is not stated until the end of the third section. All four are not only very brief but also loosely based on the theme, which is a Harvest song. The Seven Folk Ballads are arrangements and harmonisations of melodies from England, France, the Ukraine and Denmark. Four are French, including, rather charmingly, the encore. The English one is a version of The Three Ravens often attributed to Thomas Ravenscroft (d.1635).
The performances by everyone but especially by the star Jesper Sivebaek, appear flawless and the recording ideal.
This is an enchanting collection and any lover of Holmboe and all guitarists will want to have it.