Holmboe’s String Quartets, Vol. 2

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HOLMBOE: String Quartets Nos. 2 & 14. Quartetto sereno (No. 21, ed. Per Norgård) / Nightingale String Qrt / Dacapo 6220717

This is the second volume in what is evidently a projected series of Vagn Holmboe’s complete string quartets. As I noted in my review of Vol. 1, Holmboe was a composer who loved to play with juxtaposed figures and leaping, bouncing rhythms. Although his first quartet was dedicated to Bartók, the second also contains many references to the famed Hungarian composer. Even so, Holmboe had his own way of writing, and the first movement most definitely has a jazz feel to the rhythm, with the kind of loose swing one associates with that music. Except for the edgier use of harmony, this might almost be a piece by Nikolai Kapustin—at least until two minutes in, when the tempo increases and a more rigid rhythm takes over. Following his usual method, Holmboe has each of the four instruments play themes and figures that work against one another, although there are indeed full choruses where they do play together. But rhythm and harmony were clearly the two devices he played with in his music over his long career.

The second movement opens with a bitonal figure played by the viola and cello (the former in its lowest range), followed by somewhat “fluttering” figures in the violins. There is a certain amount of this back-and-forth pattern until we settle into a more continuous theme, played by the viola. This slowly climbs its way up in pitch as it develops, with the two violins joining in. In the third movement, Holmboe pulls out all the stops, producing a wild scherzo in which flying figures constantly cross one another, sometimes in a fast 4, at other times in a medium 3—and with some odd pauses along the way. Being a five-movement quartet, the fourth is an elegy, less than half as long as the second movement and even shorter than the scherzo, while the last, based on Balkan tunes, is in 5/8. The liner notes refer to its “dissonant but elegant jam session” quality. About two-thirds of the way through it, the suggestion of jazz “swing” returns.

Quartet No. 14 was the first of three in which Holboe had a tune in his head, picked up from sea gulls, which he could not get out of his head. This one is quite dense in structure, however, its six movements running a total duration of 21 minutes with the first three linked to produce a single movement in three sections. There is less recklessness and more order in this music, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing although I do miss the wild abandon of Quartet No. 2. I found the fifth-movement “Allegro” particularly imaginative, using fast, rhythmic but somewhat disjointed figures to play against one another. The last movement, an “Allegro vivace,” also has an American music feel to it, but in this case more like hoedown music than jazz.

The posthumous Quartetto sereno, left unfinished at his death, was later completed by his pupil and friend Per Norgård. It’s a nice piece, but not, in my view, on as high a level as the other quartets I’ve heard.

An excellent disc, then, as well as a valuable addition to the Holmboe discography. The Nightingale Quartet plays with fervor and commitment as well as an astounding technique.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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