Thursday, 20 October 2016

A stunning new release from Dacapo of orchestral works by Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, including two world premiere recordings, performed by Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

Danish composer, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (1932-2016)  was born in Copenhagen, the son of the sculptor Jørgen Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (1895-1966). He studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, with Finn Høffding, Svend Westergaard, Bjørn Hjelmborg, and Vagn Holmboe.

His early influences were Nielsen, Bartók and Stravinsky. Though he later looked at serialism, he soon rejected it, instead becoming a leading figure within the new simplicity movement. Within this stylistic framework Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s repeated ideas often lead to violent clashes as well as moments of static beauty.

His orchestral works include such pieces as Mester Jakob (1964), Tricolore I-IV (1966-69), Symphony, Antiphony (1978), a concerto for timpani Triptychon (1985), Concerto Grosso for string quartet and orchestra (1990), Cello Concerto (1996), a Violin Concerto (2002) and the piano concerto Plateaux pour Piano et Orchestre (2005) as well as fourteen string quartets.

Gudmundsen-Holmgreen died on 26 June 2016.

Dacapo Records have just issued an important release of three of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s orchestral works played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra  conducted by Thomas Dausgaard and including no less than two World Premiere Recordings.


The first of the world premiere recordings is Mirror II (1973) for orchestra; that began life as a work for violin and electronics. In six movements, Movement I opens with mysterious hushed orchestral sounds over a quietly pounding beat. Slowly various instrumental textures and sounds are added before a quiet melodic idea arrives. The music slides gently upwards before a plucked string is repeated over high strings. The orchestra gently expands with bright, ringing percussion and brass with woodwind adding colour and texture, all over a gentle, quiet melancholy orchestral backdrop. A clarinet weaves a theme along with a doleful cor-anglais as various individual instruments add little ideas before the coda is reached. We move straight into Movement II where a violin brings a folksy theme over brass in a fast moving passage, developing through ever changing textures as the theme is constantly repeated throughout the orchestra, becoming ever more complex.
The music changes to spiky rhythmic intervals as Movement III arrives. These rhythmic intervals again are developed through a myriad of ideas and textures with various instruments having a say before moving into Movement IV where the music broadens with heavy metallic percussion and thundering drums as the strings take the melodic line. Brass come in over the top in descending phrases in music that is full of insistent strength as it pushes forward. This music of great weight and power creates a terrific excitement.
Movement V brings repeated striking percussion to which the brass respond with raucous outburst that show the influence of Stravinsky. A tuba tries to take the theme forward but the percussion persist in their chopping rhythms with brass outbursts that take us into Movement VI where a lone violin arrives to bring a plaintive melody. The percussion still persist with the incisive rhythm but the violin also persists with its melody.  Soon the brass seems to agree and brings less combative ideas. More strings fill out the violin melody as the music finds more freedom, sliding round whilst percussion and brass persist. Slowly and subtly the music reduces in dynamics until brass and sliding strings lead us forward. Still the percussion and brass have a final say before the strings slide us into the quiet coda.

This is a highly individual yet quite beautiful and entrancing work.

Symphony, Antiphony (1977) for orchestra opens with the short Symphony with percussion and piano bringing a series of chords that move around freely. Soon the orchestra joins to take up the idea adding a little to the tempo and developing the idea. A drum adds a beat as the music pushes quickly forward, full of terrific colour and textural ideas to a climax before falling to a hush.
Antiphony – I opens with a fast moving yet quiet rhythmic idea for a solo violin. This folksy, repeated little idea gives way to a sudden outburst of the theme from the whole orchestra. The music is full of glowing colours and textures as it develops with, later, a rather oriental idea for vibraphone over which raucous dissonant brass break out.  Underneath it al,l the strings push forward the original motif, all making for a chaotic yet brilliantly conceived passage. It is the raucous brass that takes us into Antiphony II where many instruments contribute dissonant ideas, developing a strange, rather playful quality, a bassoon brings a rich underlay, percussion add colour and a piano is heard tinkling. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen finds some lovely little moments here. A celeste joins as the music grows quieter and slower, this composer generating a lovely melody that briefly appears through the texture before the solo violin re-appears to bring about a hushed coda.  
A piano brings a ragtime theme for Antiphony III with percussion adding to the texture as do brass before moving quickly into Antiphony IV where the orchestra with prominent brass take the melody into a repeated, swirling idea. It is varied through moments for drums and brass, finding a terrific energy as it pounds forward. There are passages of increasing power and raucousness, reminding one of the music of the 1920’s style mécanique, before collapsing to allow the piano to re-join. Yet still there are raucous orchestral interruptions before a strident conclusion out of which the solo piano appears to take the gentle rather tentative Antiphony V forward.

The lone piano expands the theme, a rather affecting idea after all the noise and energy that came before. Hushed strings join before leading into Antiphony VI which arrives with the strings of the orchestra taking the melody forward, bringing some beautiful passages. This composer brings his own personal slant by adding string slides and occasional outbursts from the percussion. There are many fine textural ideas.  The music moves through moments of exquisite detail and atmosphere, a myriad of little details, before slowly finding a hushed coda – yet with a final intrusion from the percussion.  

Incontri (2010, rev. 2011-12) for orchestra also receives its world premiere recording here in the form of a live recording from the 2012 BBC Proms. There is a swish of percussion before the woodwind take the music ahead with a gentle rhythmic theme. The music rises in drama as the theme is repeated and slowly developed, weaving some fine textures and colours and broadening through some terrific ideas. There are varying rhythmic patterns with the strings bringing a repeated rhythmic idea. Later the music gains a heavier tread as brass intone a repeated motif over heavy basses. The music becomes jazzier in style with a virtuoso passage for drums. This piece is spread around the orchestra much like a concerto for orchestra. Individual strings weave some fine moments before a gentle section over hushed static strings. There are overlaid themes as the music rises to move forward powerfully, often wildly, but eventually finding a hushed coda.

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was a distinctive voice. These performances from Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Symphony Orchestra could not be bettered. The recordings are all tip top and there are excellent booklet notes from Andrew Mellor.

This is a stunning new release from Dacapo.

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