Holmboe String Quartet no. 4, op. 63

performed by the Kontra Quartet, available on Spotify

(cover image by Arash Asghari)

Vagn Holmboe’s fourth quartet dates from 1954, about four years after the previous quartet. This was already after his eighth symphony, and he would go back and revise this quartet in 1956, a year after the fifth quartet was completed.

The work is in five movements, as below, with a playing time of about 24 minutes:

  1. Andante passionato
  2. Presto espansivo
  3. Adagio affettuosa
  4. Largo e semplice
  5. Allegretto sereno

Of the fourth quartet, Rob Barnett says that “These five movements speak a new complexity. … It’s touched with dissonance as well as optimism.” One thing we can see is that there’s no arch form like we saw in the third. The first and final movements hover around something not too fast, but the second and fourth are about as different in tempo markings as they could be, with a general slowing down from the second to the third and into the fourth movement.

I couldn’t find any information about this work anywhere. Neither Naxos nor Chandos had program notes or a booklet or anything to read, and most reviews only remark at Holmboe’s exceptional contribution to 20th century string quartet repertoire. That’s about it, aside from its inclusion into the composer’s complete (?) list of works on Wikipedia, whence come the dates above.

The ‘passionato’ of the first movement certainly comes through from the first bars. This is neither the shortest nor the longest movement, but it is certainly intense. You can listen for that passionate, dramatic writing, the intensely rich string sound Holmboe elicits from the four instruments, but in contrast with that are spacious, broad, very exposed textural passages, like various conversations between different pairs of instruments.

At times the intensity, which takes on the timbre of the tragic, seems as if it’s at its breaking point, reaching an absolute climax, but still pushing yet further, until these at times seemingly disparate lines coalesce, and the effect is breathtaking. These individual tendrils slowly trail off until the first movement has faded away.

The ‘expansive’ presto second movement is the longest of the entire piece, but granted only six seconds longer than the third movement in this recording (which I feel must certainly be the only one that exists). Interestingly, though, it takes this fast-paced, busy chapter some time to get anything above a whisper. It almost never stops moving, and even when we reach a middle section that does pronouncedly slow down, there’s still the wake of what came before, as the now more deliberate music still undulates. There are some interesting effects that close out this movement in a surprisingly static manner, leading right into the somber third.

There really does seem to be a sense of slowing down, of these three middle movements being connected, like they’re beginning to freeze in time, slowly crystallizing. The third movement is, as mentioned, almost as substantial as the previous, but very sparse in comparison, and the fourth even more so, to the point that its bare gestures and single sounds hanging in space almost suggest Webern, and with almost the same degree of dissonance. This is just a passing thought, though, and lasts not even two minutes.

The finale seems to be quickly recovering from the tragedy of earlier, and while there’s no mistaking this for anything from the 19th century, there’s a brighter sense of purpose and optimism about this movement. Holmboe’s enduring interest in folk music seems to reappear, as we get more rustic sounds, no jig or folk dance or anything, but maybe just whiffs of Sibelius or Bartók. What’s most surprising, I think, is how this work ends, but you’ll have to go have a listen to find out.

Again, Holmboe’s sound is unique, as he’s venturing out into exciting territory, well stocked with exceptional talent and a finesse for writing for strings, be it a concerto or quartet setting. I had forgotten how many quartets he wrote, thinking of the number of symphonies (13) instead of quartets (20 numbered and a dozen or something before the first of those, but it seems they’ve not been recorded, or even published), so we have a lot more excitement to see from him as we move along in his output. I’d just like to know more about his compositional process, what I might be missing about the content he presents in a piece like this. Oh well.

We’ll be working back ’round to Weinberg next week, so stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading.

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