More of Holmboe’s String Quartets


HOLMBOE: String Quartets Nos. 2 & 14. Quartetto Sereno (No. 21, ed. by Norgård) / Nightingale String Qrt / Dacapo 6.220717

Here, a year and a half after Vol. 1 came out, we have Vol. 2 of Vagn Holmboe’s string quartets. The quality of both the music and the performances are just as high as on the first release.

As I noted in my earlier review, Holmboe was unusual among modern composers in that he used recognizable rhythms in his music. He also wasn’t one much for dark or congested harmonies, although one clearly recognizes this music as a descendant of Bartók. Generally speaking, as in the first movement of the Quartet No. 2, Holmboe sets up lively rhythmic figures which he sometimes juxtaposes, then evolves his developments from those. Yet although his music is consistently rhythmic, it is not all at the same tempo; on the contrary, he apparently liked to use both contrasting tempi and contrasting basic tonality to make his effects. It is music that appeals, then, to both the average listener who gets nothing out of 12-tone string writing and the more sophisticated listener who follows the train of Holmboe’s thoughts.

As part of his harmonic arsenal, Holmboe used a lot of open fourths and fifths in his string writing. He also seemed to enjoy pitting the two violins, recorded in the left channel playing together, against more syncopated, solo-note figures by the viola and cello, recorded in the right channel. In the second movement of this quartet, the opposite is true; the viola and cello play chorded figures together on the right while the violins play faster, opposing figures on the left. This was yet another way in which Holmboe differentiated himself from other composers. About a minute and a half into this movement, the viola suddenly begins playing an intense, lyrically passionate theme, which eventually draws the other three instruments into its vortex for the end of the theme and then its development. But the thing I like most about Holmboe’s music is that it is concise and tightly written. There are no wasted notes or phrases; everything is classically balanced within the framework of each individual movement. The listener never feels that he has said too much or too little, but just enough, and that’s something that cannot be said for many modern composers.

The third and central movement is an almost crazy-sounding “Scherzo” in which Holmboe both pushed and fractured the rhythm in very strange ways that must be heard to be believed. Then, almost as if by way of repudiating everything that has come before, the fourth movement is a lovely, completely tonal “Adagio un poco” that could easily have come from an early 20th-century quartet, at one point even using fluttering violins over a richly conceived theme played by the solo cello. By way of announcing that he wasn’t through yet, however, Holmboe ended this quartet with a final “Allegro molto e leggiero” in which he often pitted two different keys against one another, although the general harmonic bias is indeed tonal.—and, of course, rhythmic figures and lots of them.

The 14th Quartet, written 26 years later, is a bit more atonal but not forbidding in sound. It opens with a passionate violin solo, playing a lyrical figure that eventually settles into tonality as the other three instruments come in underneath, playing other lyrical figures against one another rhythmically. These figures are then developed at some length. In the second movement, he reverts to his playful, fast rhythms; some of these themes, or perhaps better described as little musical gestures, always seem to me to have an underlying feeling of humor about them…not that Holmboe is putting the listener on, but just that he enjoys writing music that has a bit of jollity in it. The third movement is also a fast one (“Allegro agitato”) and, although it is less overtly humorous, it also seems to have a little twinkle in its eye, if you know what I mean, despite its leaning towards the minor and not the major. And, if anything, Holmboe’s writing became even tighter and more terse as time went on; although this quartet is in six movements instead of four, its playing time is actually four and a half minutes shorter than the Quartet No. 2! Aftr a four-minute slow movement, we get a brief (1:44) “Allegro” played pizzicato and subito throughout, followed by a more overt fast, final movement, this time much more serious than the other three in that vein.

Late in life, Holmboe wrote two quartets which he did not number, thus somewhat excluding them from the numbered series of 20. The Quartetto sereno was his last, left unfinished on his desk when he died; it was completed by his friend and pupil, Per Norgård, to whom he had dedicated his fourth quartet. Interestingly, Norgård and Holmboe had a parting of the ways in 1960 when the younger composer wanted to explore more modern and radical methods of composition which the older had no interest in, but it was an amicable parting; Holmboe made it clear that his door was always open if Norgård wanted to return to their earlier, shared style, thus the latter found it relatively east, as well as personally satisfying, to complete this quartet for his old master. Without knowing how much of this is Holmboe and how much is Norgård, my guess is that the fast-paced, rather more dissonant development section in the first movement is at least partially Norgård; it just sounds a bit too dissonant to be Holmboe; but of course, I’m just guessing. The liner notes suggest that the fast second movement is more Norgård, but also points out that the two composers, who had reconciled some years before Holmboe’s death, had long conversations together about this very quartet, so Norgård knew how Holmboe wanted to proceed.

As in the case of the first CD, this is not only a fascinating release but a valuable one. I sincerely hope that the Nightingale Quartet is able to complete the series!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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