Holmboe Violin Sonata no. 2, op. 16

performed by Johannes Søe Hansen, violin; Christina Bjørkøe, piano

(cover image by Maciej Rusek)

In her review of the album on which this recording appears, Catherine Nelson describes the work as “nimble and lovely” with “fluid, folk-inspired phrases.”

If you read yesterday’s article, you’ll know why. If not, it’s because Holmboe finished his studies in Berlin, married a Romanian pianist and moved with her back to her homeland, where he spent some time in the country side collecting and cataloging folksong. This work comes from 1939, about six years after Holmboe married his wife and relocated, when he was about 30.

Rob Barnett, in a review for MusicWeb quoted at Naxos, says:

In the Second Sonata one can sense the Balkans and Transylvania marinade associated with his folk song collecting activities. The music is in constant motion in the outer movements—vehement with Bartokian rhythms… The central movement bespeaks the solo sonatas and partitas of Bach.

That’s a compliment, certainly.

There’s an immediate difference in the opening, a surprising splash of what sounds like blues harmony before the violin enters and returns to something of the folksy nature of the first sonata. This is still (also) a very early work, but there might already be a sense of greater maturity and a difference in tone with some cadenza-like passages in the first movement. You’ll hear a palindromic four-note rhythm, like the shape of a downward-pointing, unused staple, throughout this movement, embellished here and there.

It feels like the jazzy tendencies in this first movement appear here and there but can never get off the ground. I don’t know if that’s just my non-Romanian ear picking up on what sounds bluesy, or if it’s intentional, bu the violin seems to be sticking, albeit more pensively, to the more “Bartókian” idiom we heard in the first sonata. Here, though, there appears to be more substance than just flare.

The second movement is a standout. As more mature writing goes, this movement is fantastic. The violin opens with a serious statement, but not long after that, the piano responds with what sounds almost like the ‘easy listening’  kind of music you might hear in a hotel lobby. It’s a pensive middle movement, reflective and personal, and while it does reach some passionate climaxes, the intensity is more in heartfelt lyricism than any showy display, another indication of Holmboe’s excellent craft as a composer.

The finale brings Bartók back, with more percussive piano, gypsy-ish fire and drive. There’s mischief and a sense of confidence in the writing, and still some blue-tinged lines in the piano. I wonder where that comes from. I shan’t continue to describe this small work in terms of other composers or cliches because what it does boil down to is presenting a unique sound, perhaps as a transitional work, but of a composer finding his way through a vast and exciting musical tradition.

This second sonata, only a few years (and 14 opus numbers) after his first, shows him to be a more mature composer, not just in age, but in the way he can retain the tension and progress of a work without constantly resorting to flash or splash. The forming of the first movement around a few basic gestures and the spirited solemness of the second movement are more than notable. The third adds and contrasts to this, resulting in a satisfying work that shows increasing talent and hopefully makes you excited to hear yet more from this composer as we work through his output in the coming months and years.

We’ll be seeing a bit more early(ish) Holmboe this week in various forms, so do stay tuned for that, and then we’ll be on to something a little different. Thank you so much for reading.


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