Holmboe Chamber Concerto no. 6 for violin and chamber orchestra, op. 33

performed by Mikkel Futtrup, Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra & Hannu Koivula

(Again, no YouTube for today, but get used to it. Buy your music or at the very least support your artists and record labels through Spotify. You can find lots of Holmboe [including this album] there.)

(cover image by David Kovalenko)

We begin the discussion of Holmboe’s chamber concertos with the sixth, composed in 1942-43. The first, for piano and chamber orchestra, was completed in 1939, and the latest, for oboe and viola, was completed in 1956, meaning the baker’s dozen of chamber concertos spanned nearly two decades.

Paul Geffen, in speaking of perhaps not just these works, but Holmboe’s early stuff in general, is a little harsh. He says at Classical Net:

[Holmboe] uses central European folk material in an unusual synthesis with contemporaneous Scandinavian styles. The result is neither here nor there, tending to combine the weaker elements of both. These concertos, written between 1942 and 1945, are a not entirely successful combination of the harmonies of Nielsen or Sibelius with the insistent rhythms and ad hoc organisation of the folk music.

I’m not sure I entirely agree with the “weaker elements” part, and certainly don’t agree with the “not entirely successful” statement. I can see, as maybe you could from the violin sonatas earlier in the week, that it is an interesting synthesis, and there may be some kind of middle no-man’s-land as Holmboe transitions out of Transylvania and back to Scandinavia.

Reviewer Christopher Culver says on Amazon, more positively, that Holmboe is “consolidating a neoclassical style with the slightest of influences from other modernist trends” and that the works “aptly depict the wartime in which they were written.”

We’re addressing the sixth now rather than the first in keeping with some of the violin stuff I’ve been writing about recently. This sixth concerto, again dating from 1943, comes from between the composer’s fourth and fifth symphonies. Many people suggest that a proper approach to Holmboe is by way of the symphonies, and I would certainly suggest going and listening to the fifth. It is a remarkable work to have come so (relatively) early in his output.

Today’s work has a duration of about 23 minutes, and is in three movements, as follows:

  1. Andante – Allegro Con Brio
  2. Andante Tranquillo
  3. Allegro Molto

The second movement makes up nearly half the playing time of the work, and is a “slow and tragic passacaglia.” But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The whole work strikes me as having a kind of Baroque undertone, party due to the intimacy of the chamber ensemble, but also because there’s some characteristic back-and-forth in this movement, a dialogue or turn-taking between soloist and orchestra. It does border on a bit repetitive with its themes, but even that reminds me of a Baroque concerto. This first movement is relatively straightforward, and doesn’t cover any kind of broad musical territory, but has satisfying solo writing for the violin and overall is a solid, convincing first movement.

This captivating violin writing carries through to, and really is the centerpiece of, the second movement, the focus of the entire concerto, really. As stated previously, it is a passacaglia, beginning with a long, plaintive cadenza-like passage for the soloist. If you’ve been following along a bit with the previous works from earlier in his career, you may be surprised at the (sudden?) level of maturity in this writing.

After the violin’s establishment of the mood, the orchestra enters, adding weight to the dirge-like atmosphere, and the result is a movement that I feel is exceptionally effective, with, as Annette Morreau says at Classical-Music.com, “real intensity of feeling transmitted.” She said it’s also “freed from neo-classical chugging,” perhaps a small jab at the first movement. In any case, the middle movement is stupendously written.

The mood breaks in the brief finale. Culver says that the finale “opens with a solo passage inspired by the Nordic fiddling tradition and is soon joined by the entire orchestra in all its colourful timbres, in dance rhythms.”

It’s not only lighthearted, but finally where we have some kind of synthesis of soloist and orchestra, another thing that reminds me of the Bach concerto we talked about a few weeks back. For the very few of you who may be familiar with the composer’s first symphony, there’s a clear sharing of material between the first movement of that work (op. 4) and this finale, but I’m not sure it’s intentional. At the very least they both contain, to some degree or other, a rustic sort of almost Copland-esque nature.

I won’t go so far as to say that this work is like Bach, but is perhaps at least maybe a little bit (neo?)Baroque. It wouldn’t surprise me if Holmboe had some elements of the Baroque concerto in mind, with Bach’s E major concerto as a model (or perhaps I’m making spurious parallels).

Whatever the case, I’m very impressed at Holmboe’s level of maturity with this work. It’s a relatively small package, somewhat unassuming, but it’s a full package, offering a satisfying combination of all the things a full-scale concerto should be and have, so I’m pleased.

We have one more piece from Holmboe to round out the week, and then we’re moving on to other, quite different things, so do stay tuned for that and thank you so much for reading.

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