The Key Masterpieces

Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Michael Schønwandt;
Danish Radio Sinfonietta, Hannu Koivula;
Athleas Sinfonietta Copenhagen, Giordano Bellincampi;
Morten Zeuthen, cello; Trio Ondine; Kontra String Quartet

Dacapo

I must admit total ignorance as far as prior experience of Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996), and I’m probably far from alone in that respect. His fellow countrymen regard him as the successor to his mentor Carl Neilsen as Denmark’s greatest composer. But while Neilsen has gradually achieved world fame, thanks in large part to the untiring efforts of his admirers among conductors and critics, Holmboe remains little known outside his native land. Of the 33 recordings of his music currently listed on Arkivmusic.com, only one is on a label that is not Danish (Dacapo, Danacord, or Classico). Like that of Nielsen, Holmboe’s music is uncompromisingly honest and direct, solidly structured, very personal and very intense (“Controlled ecstasy” is the way he described it). There is little in it that is superficially colorful or pretty. His use of the strings is notable for its extremes, from the darkest stratum of the lowest strings to the most brilliant high register of the violins, a sound so intensely brilliant it hurts.

In keeping with the aim of Dacapo’s Perspectives series, this 2-CD set is described as comprising the composer’s “Key Masterpieces,” as culled from that label’s discography. Actually, it’s a fairly representative sampling of the range of Holmboe’s writing, considering the fact that it comprised more than 200 opus numbers. None of his 13 symphonies is represented, but we do have Chamber Symphony No. 4, Op. 20 (1940) and Sinfonia 1, Op. 73a (1957). The former is distinguished by the interweaving lines of violin and flute soloists and by a strikingly original use of the percussion as an integral part of the texture and not just for accents or special effects. The latter is notable for its tight structure and economy of means. The Sonata for Solo Cello (1969), which makes exceptional technical demands of the performer, is also highly expressive, illustrating what Holmboe meant by “controlled ecstasy.” It calls for the excellent performance it receives here from cellist Morten Zeuthen. Nuigen (1976) was Holmboe’s own pet name for his Second Piano Trio. The title could be translated “What, again?” It, too, represents the composer’s attempt to extract the essence of folk music in its outer movements, to which he contrasts an intermezzo “in sacred style.” His Fourth String Quartet and his tone poem “To the Seagulls and the Cormorants,” Op. 174 (both completed 1987) show that his rigorous approach and the rugged expressive power of his music were far from diminished in his later years.

That leaves us with his oratorio Requiem for Nietzsche (1963-64), based on sonnets by the Danish poet Thorkild Bjørnvig describing Nietzsche’s journey toward both enlightenment and madness. It is an almost indescribable work, making heavy demands on the tenor and bass soloists (particularly the latter, sung here by Johan Reuter) and calling on the chorus for a number of surprising aleatoric effects that include speaking in a hubbub of voices, whispering, and shouting in addition to plain old-fashioned singing. Even if it didn’t include some controversial notions in its libretto – such as that the voice of Jesus’ tempter in the wilderness was the voice of truth, corresponding to Nietzsche’s idea of man as a limitless, self-contained god – this avant-garde work makes such demands on the listener that it is clearly not for everyday listening.

The performances on this program are universally fine. The recordings, made at different times and in different venues, have been mastered in clear, transparent sonics that give the listner the feeling of a coherent program.

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