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Classical Lost And Found: Neglected Symphonies By A Great Dane

Vagn Holmboe is considered Denmark's finest composer of symphonies after Carl Nielsen.
Jesper Hom
Dacapo records
Vagn Holmboe is considered Denmark's finest composer of symphonies after Carl Nielsen.

Most would agree that Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996) was Denmark's greatest symphonist after Carl Nielsen and Rued Langgaard. So it's something of an occasion that the three chamber symphonies from the latter half of his career finally see the light of day on this new release on the Dacapo label.

Without a wasted note, this is rigorously compact, sinewy music that grows on you with each listening. The composer's principle of thematic metamorphosis is evident throughout these world premiere recordings.

The First Chamber Symphony, from 1951, is a four-movement neoclassical gem that opens with a threatening timpani roll. This heralds an austere utilitarian motif that becomes the DNA for the whole work. A brief, anguished development follows and then the movement ends quietly.

Next up, a fleeting Animato and ruminative Adagio, which are both reminiscent of Nielsen's last three symphonies. The final Allegro has a scampering idea that's a metamorphosis of previous motifs. It brings the symphony full circle, again demonstrating Holmboe's structural mastery.

The Second Chamber Symphony, from 1968 and subtitled "Elegy," is considerably more complex. The icy opening Andante has vibraphone accents, mocking horn calls and moments reminiscent of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra.

An explosive Presto and pensive Adagio follow, with the latter again bringing Bartók to mind. Turmoil breaks out once more in the final Allegro but eventually dissipates, ending the symphony in medias res. More of the head than heart, this music has intellectual rather than emotional appeal.

Holmboe would write his third chamber symphony over the next two years. Composed in association with a sculptor friend's creation of a frieze for a school building, the six-movement work is accordingly subtitled "Frise" (Frieze). Its informality makes it more of a suite of tone pictures than one of the composer's rigorously structured symphonies.

Yet metamorphic processes are again much in evidence, and there's a harmonic austerity reminiscent of Paul Hindemith. Many may find the driving finale this album's high point.

Recorded in Rovaniemi, Finland, bordering the frigid wastelands of the Arctic Circle, these performances by the Lapland Chamber Orchestra under John Storgårds are white hot. The playing is technically as well as artistically of the highest order.

Bob McQuiston revels in under-the-radar repertoire at his website Classical Lost and Found.

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Bob McQuiston