The Three Chamber Symphonies of Danish Composer Vagn Holmboe

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A perfect recording for an Uncommonly Classical recommendation, these chamber symphonies are all appearing as World Premiere Recordings, and are deeply rewarding to listen to! Danish composer Vagn Holmboe was born in 1909 and studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. Holmboe’s music is predominately tonal; written in a neoclassical style characterized by economy, balance and clarity. He produced about 360 works in many different genres and is considered to be the most important Danish symphonist after Carl Nielsen. The three chamber symphonies on this DaCapo CD were written between 1951 and 1970 and show the influence of Bartók, Stravinsky, Nielsen and Shostakovich.

These symphonies are “chamber” only in the limited number of musicians involved. They are works that are conceived broadly in terms of dynamics and expression with soft and lyrical sections set in contrast to episodes that are fiercely aggressive. Holmboe uses many instruments of color, especially from the percussion section, and with the inclusion of the celesta in the case of the Second Chamber Symphony.

During the period that he was writing these works, Holmboe was also developing his compositional technique of musical metamorphosis. The principal behind this idea was that a musical theme is not so much “developed” as it mutates, and can transform into something completely different from its origin. A perfect example of this technique is apparent right from the opening measures of the First Chamber Symphony, where the nucleus from which the entire work grows is presented in three notes from the french horns. This brief statement is picked up by trumpet, then clarinet, followed by flute and strings, and it has already begun to subtly change.

The performances sound perfectly natural and the first-rate musicians of the Lapland Chamber Orchestra under conductor John Storgards clearly make technical as well as artistic sense of these works. Is the music challenging to listen to? Only so much as, say, Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and if you enjoy this, there’s plenty more of Vagn Holmboe’s music on CD for you to explore.