Holmboe Chamber Concerto no. 9 for violin and viola, op. 39

performed by Mikkel Futtrup, violin; Tim Frederiksen, viola; and the Danish National Chamber Orchestra under Hannu Koivula, available on Spotify

(cover image by Eberhard Grossgasteiger)

We have a special guest in today’s episode. This isn’t quite how I expected to feature the first concerto for (or at least including) viola on the blog, but here we are. We’ll get around to Walton and Bartók one of these days, but this guest star in what would usually be a violin concerto this week turns out… to take most of the spotlight away from the violin in many cases.

We have by this point discussed only one of Holmboe’s 13 chamber concertos, that being the sixth, for violin. The pieces in the set are numbered sequentially, irrespective of the instruments for which they were written. The first is for piano (the only piano concerto the composer ever wrote), the second for flute and violin, the third for clarinet, and on and on. You can look up the rest.

The ninth chamber concerto, for violin and viola, dates from 1945-46.

I should note that Holmboe did indeed write a violin concerto in 1938, labeled as his op. 14, or M. 105, his ‘violin concerto no. 1,’ but I’ve not been able to find a recording (or really even mention) of it anywhere (I think it hasn’t ever been recorded; I’d be delighted if you could prove me wrong, with audio evidence), so that’s why we’re on to the chamber concertos, which is fine with me. His second violin concerto, while we’re on the topic, came much later.

Again, per Chandos:

The neoclassical concertos for one or more soloists reveal Holmboe’s rustic, down-to-earth style that can be described as Danish or Nordic, as well as his inspiration from eastern European folk music.

The booklet

The piece is in three movements, as follows, with a playing time of about 21 minutes:

  1. Allegro molto
  2. Andante tranquillo
  3. Finale- allegro

That’s a pretty standard concerto form, but what stands out in the very beginning is the almost acerbic sound of the opening, eschewing the lighter, more neoclassical sound for something that some would certainly consider grating. It is menacing, has bite, with its crisp, stepwise motion. There’s a palindromic figure here, made of an interval up (how far?) and then back down to where it began, if that makes sense, so listen for that.

Viola begins everything, but this aggressive, nervous music suddenly turns folklike, as we see this conversation develop between the two solo instruments. It’s a testament to both Holmboe’s writing, and the performers, I’m sure, that these two parts layered on top of, or woven into, one another sounds almost like one instrument, outlining the broader tone qualities and range and color of the string family. It’s really beautiful writing.

The percussion lends color and the slightest tinge of a military feel to some portions of the first movement, and it does remind us that this is a chamber concerto, so the woodwind section strikes me as being basically a lot of solos, but that’s an inherent part of this lighter writing, although you wouldn’t know it from the heavy beginning.

There are cadenzas for both soloists at the close of this ambitious little first movement, and it ends quietly. After that, it seems as if the composer backs off a little bit, because nothing in this work approaches the kind of aggression that began the piece. The second movement is chamber indeed, the shortest of the work, and only for the two soloists. The entire orchestra is tacit for this movement, and the attention is really given to the viola, with support and additional color and beauty afforded by the violin. It’s essentially a slow, tender, at times melancholy cadenza, just remarkable writing for the two instruments, independently and together.

The finale calls to mind the in-your-face opening of the first movement, and there appears here to be some sort of fanfare in the works, with brass and percussion, but it never gets there. Instead we have a very folksy finale, like what we might hear from Copland or something; it’s bouncy and playful, and maybe unlike what we’d expect from the opening, generally actually pretty light. There are (to me) some French-sounding shades, pastoral blues like we might hear from Milhaud or someone.

But then we actually do have kind of a march, and for the rather diminutive little piece that this is, the ascent to the climax and final close of this movement makes up what seems like a rather large coda. There are two or three points at which you’d think it is just going to finish right… not now. It finishes with a satisfying punch, leaving the impression that Holmboe not only knows how to write exceptionally effectively for strings, but to elicit the greatest amount of force, color, imagery, texture from a much smaller ensemble than the Romantic era would typically use.

Is this an obscure piece? Most definitely. Is it also a bit of insight into how Holmboe may have been warming up to do more daring things? I think so. It’s only his op. 39, but those opening bars of this work are pretty breathtaking compared to anything from the first symphony. He kind of comes off that a little bit, like maybe he lost his courage, but maybe he didn’t. In any case, there’s really gorgeous writing here to enjoy, and we’ll be seeing more of Holmboe this weekend, so do stay tuned for that. Thanks so much for reading.

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