VAGN HOLMBOE: Chamber Symphonies = Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 53; Chamber Symphony No. 2, Op. 100, “Elegy”; Chamber Symphony No. 3, Op. 103a, “Frise” (“Frieze”) – Lapland Chamber Orchestra / John Storgårds – Dacapo multichannel SACD 6.220621, 69:03 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
If you’re not familiar with the music of Vagn Holmboe, this recording, noted as a world premiere, of the three chamber symphonies might be a good place to start. It not only introduces you to works that parallel similar developments in Holmboe’s symphonies of the same time periods, but it allows you to traverse a lot of ground in the development of the composer’s compositional style and technique. Chamber Symphony No. 1 was written in 1951, between Holmboe’s Symphonies No. 7 and 8, while Chamber Symphony No. 2 (1968) and 3 (1970) are contemporary with the composition of Symphonies No. 9 and 10. (In all, Holmboe wrote thirteen symphonies as well as a great deal of other music, including about twenty concertos and as many string quartets.) As the dates of composition indicate, there was a corresponding hiatus of more than fifteen years between the first pair of symphonies mentioned and the last. During that time, some changes were wrought in Holmoboe’s compositional thinking.
While Holmboe studied with Ernst Toch, he never adopted Toch’s abstruse, avant-garde style but instead always wrote tonal music that shows a decided debt to neo-Classicism. The First Chamber Symphony is the most neo-Classical of these works, economical and rigorously developed. It illustrates his concept of musical metamorphosis, which, for all that it sounds like a new idea, doesn’t strike me as terribly advanced compared to Liszt’s identically named compositional technique. Like Liszt’s Faust Symphony, Holmboe’s work is launched with a theme—in Holmboe’s case, a three-note motive—that the composer subjects to metamorphosis throughout the work. As in Liszt, the theme changes in character depending on the musical context. However, Holmboe also seems to take a page from Sibelius’s playbook. Sibelius was famous for another type of symphonic metamorphosis, in which a theme is first introduced as a series of snatches and fragments, building finally into a full-blown statement of the theme, as in the treatment of the grand main melody in the finale of Sibelius’s Fifth. Like Sibelius, Holmboe was a great student of nature, living most of his life near Lake Arresø in northern Zealand, in fjord country; his relationship with nature inspired his music and his compositional thinking.
Holmboe explained symphonic metamorphosis as a transition “from egg to larva to cocoon to insect.” He went on to describe the technique as “related to many things thyat slowly seep in through one’s life with nature. . . . Something decomposes and becomes something else. The whole vast process of nature plays a huge role.” Note-writer Jens Cornelius explains, “The first three notes from the French horn are the small ‘egg’ from which the whole symphony grows. The turn of phrase permeates many of the lines that emerge in the greatly varied movements. . . .” finally culminating, as with Sibelius, in a full statement of the theme derived from this motive—but not until the third movement of Holmboe’s work.
Holmboe’s sound world in the First Chamber Symphony is crisp and clear to the point of austerity. The minor mode predominates, so if the work conjures up nature images, they’re images of the wintery and the windswept. As I say, the symphony is neo-Classical in bent and recalls Hindemith in its rhythmic drive, but there are also hints of Holmboe’s great countryman Carl Nielsen in the use of the wind instruments, for example.
The Second Chamber Symphony is more colorfully orchestrated, less rigorously constructed and with even more contrast between movements. Subtitled “Elegy,” the work is troubled, with only brief respites from the tension, the middle movements interlocked by the recurrence of themes. The last movement, an almost brutal Allegro con brio, progresses through a series of new themes before there are echoes of the opening of the symphony: “The ostinato and horn motif from the first movement seize power as in a coup. . . . The symphony ends in exhaustion after struggling with its pent-up forces.” Whatever the occasion for this elegy, it seems that in the course of the symphony Holmboe works his musical way through all the stages of grieving.
The last chamber symphony represents a break from the aesthetic of the earlier ones. According to Jens Cornelius, it “was written in parallel with the sculptor Arne L. Hansen’s (1922-2009) execution of a ceramic frieze as decoration for the Aalborghus Upper Secondary School.” This may not seem like a promising pretext for a symphony, but as it turns out, the project liberated Holmboe from the constraints that his idea of symphonic metamorphosis earlier imposed. The work is more a series of self-contained symphonic meditations (Cornelius calls them “character pieces”) than an elaborate symphonic structure. Even so, the fourth movement, marked Grave con metamorfosi, recalls Holmboe’s overriding constructional principle. My favorite movement on the disc is the Allegro con forza finale, which reminds me of Lutosławski’s vital Concerto for Orchestra.
I’ve been impressed with Finnish conductor John Storgårds’ recordings of music by Vasks, Klami, Aho, and other composers from the frozen North. I’m glad to report that he and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra do equal justice to the starkly beautiful music of Holmboe. The composer’s orchestral palette isn’t as dazzling as some of the other composers mentioned, but Dacapo’s natural-sounding surround recording renders them in colors faithful to that palette. If you want to know more about the work of Vagn Holmboe, here would be a very good place to start.
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