Holmboe’s String Quartets

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HOLMBOE: String Quartets Nos. 1, 3, 15 / Nightingale String Qrt / Dacapo 8.226212

Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996) wrote 13 symphonies, a few concerti and other orchestral works, but most of his life was taken up with string quartets. In all, he wrote 30 of then, 22 of which are included in his official catalogue of works. The first presented on this disc was written at the age of 40, but he had already written ten unpublished quartets starting when he was a teenager.

This first quartet was subtitled “In Memoriam Béla Bartók,” and in it one can hear echoes of Balkan rhythms in addition to the Bartók-like arch form of the last movement. Yet Holmboe’s primary style was neoclassical, influenced by both Carl Nielsen and Igor Stravinsky, and this is apparent in the music one hears. The opening viola melody is lyrical but not tuneful in the conventional sense of the word; it jumps around the scale, often using leaps of a sixth or a ninth. One by one, the other instruments in the quartet enter to play figures counter to the viola, creating a sort of web of sound. Eventually, the quartet coalesces into a unit, but not before Holmboe pairs the violins playing in thirds against the ruminating viola and cello. It’s rather amazing to me that music of this high a caliber is so little known internationally.

Holmboe then plays with rhythmic figures lightly dancing across each other’s path before suddenly slowing things down with a brief lyrical interlude, then resuming his former pace but now with a 6/8 rhythm. In the second movement, he sets up a gentle rocking motion in the upper strings while the cello plucks gentle bass notes, sometimes using an upward glissando as it slithers through the tonality like a snake. There is also a fast middle section in this movement that acts like a scherzo. As mentioned earlier, the last movement uses a Bartók-like arch form beneath a rollicking 5/4 rhythm.

The third quartet, from the same year, also reflects the influence of Bartók in its use of a symmetrical form in addition to Haydn’s use of densely woven motifs—though Holmboe uses dissonances that would never have occurred to Haydn. It is the second movement that most resembles the earlier composer with its light, bouncing rhythms and interwoven string figures.

The Quartet No. 15, written in 1976, is part of a three-quartet set (Nos. 14-16) which, though written over a span of six years, are connected by a motif that Holmboe could not “get out of his head,” according to the notes. This little figure is described as a “seagull’s cry,” and is heard several times in the opening movement, in which it is developed interesting ways. Again according to the notes, this motif could be “unfurled, change character and function, step into the foreground or background, etc.” This is especially evident in the third movement, marked “Funèbre,” where Holmboe slowed down the “seagull’s cry” sand used it to launch an entirely new melodic line, mostly played by the viola.

This is a fascinating album. I look forward to hearing the rest of this series when it is issued.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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