Wednesday 27 February 2013

Exceptionally fine performances from Ensemble MidtVest in the second volume of Dacapo’s Holmboe chamber music series

Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996) was born in Horsens in east-central Jutland, Denmark of parents that were amateur musicians. He gained admission to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Copenhagen partly due to the recommendation of Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) . His entrance work was a String Quartet as was his graduation piece in 1929.

At the Conservatory, his teachers were Knud Jeppesen (1892-1974) (music theory) and Finn Høffding (1899-1997) (composition). In 1930 Holmboe travelled to Berlin and studied briefly with Ernst Toch (1887-1964). It was in Berlin that he met the Romanian pianist Meta May Graf whom he would later marry. Holmboe stayed in Romania in 1933/34 studying Balkan folk music which became an important influence on his music. Holmboe and Meta May married there in 1933. His interest in Bartok came from his travels and studies in the Balkans and he later made further studies into Arabic Musical Culture.

Chamber music was an important part of Holmboe’s compositional output, his first important composition being the Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1 (1935). Holmboe’s Second Symphony received First Prize in the Royal Danish Orchestra’s Scandinavian Competition in 1939. In addition to bringing Holmboe’s name to a wider audience it enabled him to buy land in Ramløse, about 30 miles from Copenhagen where he and Meta May built a house.

From 1940 to 1949 Holmboe taught at the Institute for the Blind in Copenhagen and in 1947 became a music reviewer for Politiken, a Copenhagen daily newspaper. From 1950 he was a teacher at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Copenhagen, becoming a professor there in 1955. From the late 1940’s Holmboe developed his compositional method of metamorphosis, a system based on the progress of development that transforms one matter into another.

Holmboe’s numbered works total about 370, including 13 symphonies, three chamber symphonies, four symphonies for strings, 20 string quartets, numerous concertos, one opera, and preludes for chamber orchestra, as well as choral and other music. His last work, the 21st string quartet, Quartetto sereno, was completed by his pupil, the composer Per Nørgård .

BIS Records have already made recordings of all of Holmboe’s symphonies with the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes. Last year Dacapo Records issued a fine recording of the three Chamber Symphonies with the Lapland Chamber Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds.

Now from Dacapo comes the second volume of Holmboe’s chamber music featuring the Ensemble MidtVest. Such is the exceptionally fine playing of this ensemble it is right that I should list the names of all of the members who are Matthew Jones (violin), Sanna Ripatti (viola), Jonathan Slaatto (cello), Martin Qvist Hansen (piano), Charlotte Norholt (flute), Peter Kirstein (oboe), Tommaso Lonquich (clarinet), Neil Page (horn) and Stefan Kasper (bassoon).

Eco Op.186 (1991) Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano opens with the clarinet and cello in a passionate theme in this allegro liberamente. The piano then enters alone before soon being joined by the clarinet and cello in a forward moving section that eventually slows and becomes rather nostalgic. The music again becomes passionate leading to an extended solo piano passage. When the clarinet and cello join, they seemingly feed off each other in what Holmboe calls ‘echo’.  A lovely mournful little andante con moto follows which, as it progresses, becomes more animated in a rather anxious way with the piano maintaining the mournful feel. The andante finale opens like a fresh spring morning, full of brightness. The cello joins and adds a little more gravitas but the clarinet is always leading the music up. A short, quiet piano interlude gives way to a bright ending with emphatic chords on the piano.

The andante tranquillo of Aspects Op.72 (1957) for Wind Quintet has much of an outdoors feel to it. There is nostalgia and some lovely sonority from these players. The clarinet introduces a livelier theme, full of life and movement, before the solo horn heralds a quiet section with nicely pointed up contributions from the other instrumentalists.  The andante con moto opens on the clarinet before the other instruments join in with a beautifully woven tapestry of instrumental sounds. There is some gorgeous music in this movement.

Short stabbing phrases open the andante inquieto in a faster movement, playful and full of fun, delightfully written. A short lento, opening with the clarinet, is full of quiet calm, with lovely sonorities, leading to the allegro giocoso where the bassoon enters alone on low notes, before quickly leaping upwards to be joined by the other instruments in another playful movement, with the instruments beautifully dovetailed. This is a delightful work, beautifully written and played.

The opening Praeludio: Tempo giusto of the Sonata for Violoncello solo op.101 (1968/69) brings some fine playing from Jonathan Slaatto in this slightly ruminative movement with the cello working out the opening theme. The Fugare: Allegro giusto is a lively movement full of sprung rhythms, double stopping and some lovely harmonic effects, ending on a single plucked note. The Introduzione: Adagio – Finale: Allegro giocoso opens with natural harmonics high up on the cello before alternating with a richer string sound, occasionally reminiscent of Shostakovich. There are some lovely sounds from the cellist here with pizzicato playing and a rich lower register in a passionate performance from Slaatto.

Holmboe’s Quartetto Medico Op.70 (1956) for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano was written for four amateur musician doctors. It shows Holmboe’s more humorous side – you’ve only got to look at the tempo markings. The first two movements represent the contrast between healthy and feverish. The Andante medicamento gently opens with a lovely flowing melody, very tranquil before the short Allegro quasi febrile brings some gently unsettled, animated music. Intermedico I: Andante senza pianisticitis  is a long flowing fugal melody with some especially fine playing and Intermedico II: (sans marais): Poco largamente opens with the piano in a serious melody for solo piano. (Sans marais means ‘without marsh’, one of the doctors being Dr. Mose, mose being Danish for marsh, so obviously Dr Mose was not the pianist when first performed). The final Allegro con frangula (frangula is a laxative) has an appropriately fast flowing melody with rapid piano notes accompanied by a woodwind melody.

Sextet Op.114 (1956) for flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola and cello is a terrific work with an andante that opens on the strings with a slow introduction before the bassoon enters. Soon a faster section appears very much in the neo-classical mould, with woodwind and strings weaving around each other. The andante cantabile provides an atmospheric movement, remote sounding, almost taking one into the reaches of an orchestral movement such does Holmboe use his instruments so effectively. It builds to a slightly anguished central section before falling back with the bassoon and clarinet for a quiet ending for all instruments. The allegro molto opens with short sharp notes from the strings before the woodwind playfully scurry around. There is wonderful playing from all the instrumentalists in music that is sometimes quite intricate.

These accomplished musicians give performances that are hardly likely to be bettered. With an excellent recording and informative notes this new release can be enthusiastically recommended.

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