Notes and Editorial Reviews
In the late 1950s and early '60s, Vagn Holmboe wrote four sinfonias for strings, the first three having a single movement in several contrasting tempos, and the last consisting of a prelude, two interludes, and a postlude. With its brief individual movements spread among the previous three works, you get Kairos, a single piece playing for about an hour. Much of the writing is quite beautiful, but an hour of string orchestra is a tall order for most listeners, even if the writing were less spare than is Holmboe's norm. In short, this is a piece for the composer's fans rather than one by which to make his acquaintance for the first time.
Kairos has been recorded previously, and quite well, by Dacapo, but this one is just as
good, and it's quite intelligently put together in that Sinfonia IV is presented twice, as part of the larger whole and separately (since you can play the other three, single-movement pieces individually at your convenience). Owain Arwel Hughes already has proven his credentials as a Holmboe interpreter in his excellent complete symphony cycle for BIS, so if you were collecting those pieces then this release may well represent your next logical acquisition. But do give it time, and don't feel any obligation to take it all in at a sitting.
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
The four sinfonias exist as separate entities as well as the elements of a larger work Kairos or Chairos. The four movements of Sinfonia IV are heard twice here: once as movements of Kairos and once as a complete sequence across tracks 8-11. As part of Kairos they appear as movements I, III, V, VII between which come the complete Sinfonias I, II and III.
The progress and effect of almost an hour of highly skilled string music has a skeletal sweetness, tingling pregnant tension and of striding victories hard-won. The ossiary brings forth honey. Much of the music is grave and sometimes caustic. There is an airborne mercurial tripping lightness as well: delight and melting ecstasy set free from grim inscapes. The contrast between these elements is exemplified by the first two movements of Kairos. While asserting its own identity this music can be bracketed with some of the great string works of the last century alongside the Alwyn Sinfonietta, the Elgar Introduction and Allegro, the Wirén Serenade, the Maw Life Studies, the Howells Concerto for Strings, the Bliss Music for Strings, the Schmitt Janiana, Strauss Metamorphosen, the Tippett Concerto and Corelli Fantasia and the Sinfoniettas by Bacri, Herrmann and Waxman.
The well conceived and executed liner notes by Knud Ketting provide an accessible key to the music.
Contrast the earlier recording of the sinfonias by Koivula on Dacapo which is laid out slightly differently and across 2 discs. The Dacapo is admirable but the Bis sound lends the strings a shade more richness.
This disc forms an indispensable adjunct to the unique Bis-Arwel Hughes collection of the Holmboe symphonies.
I hope I have given you some impression no matter how hamfisted of the feel of this music: spectral, visionary, grave, delightful.
-- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International
String Sinfonias I–IV, “
Owain Arwel Hughes, cond; Camarata Wales
BIS 1596 (75:20)
If I were to claim that this CD contains some of the most beautiful music written, one could be forgiven for doubting. Few in this country have even heard of Vagn Holmboe. A composer of the latter two-thirds of the 20th century—making my claim, to some, further suspect—he is among the most famous of Denmark, a prolific writer of symphonies, string quartets, concertos, tone poems, choral music, and more; all strikingly original works. He is, in fact, held by many to be that country’s greatest composer since Nielsen. Haunting, radiant, troubled, buoyant, ecstatic, and austere, the music seems to explore the whole range of the human experience. At times reminiscent of Britten and Sibelius, more often of Bartók and the folk music of Eastern Europe, classical in construction, but definitely modern in the organic (as opposed to dialectic) metamorphosis of his thematic material, Holmboe’s voice is unique, but never disquietingly unfamiliar. His music is deeply emotional, the intense feelings held below the surface in what he characterized as “controlled ecstasy.” It is tonal, often diatonic or modal, but contemporary in the use of dissonance as an expressive tool. It is compelling music richly deserving wider currency, and this release of the string sinfonias is an excellent place to begin.
These four works, written between 1957 and 1962 while Holmboe was teaching at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, are perfect exemplars of his work, distilled in exquisite precision to statements of 10 to 20 minutes each. They were initially conceived as separate string symphonies; at some point in writing the series the composer devised an overarching plan to combine the works into one large statement. He wrote: “
in the psychological sense, that is, the passage of time as we sense it—as opposed to
, which is the name for the time that can be divided up into seconds and minutes. … Apart from the general variability of time that arises between intensive and relaxed periods, I have further tried to shed light on the problem, for example through alternations between objective-abstract and subjective-expressive passages, through different but simultaneously active time sequences, and through the timelessness of the metamorphoses in the chronological sense.”
is, then, an exploration of the perception of time, and to the listener willing to devote the hour required to the intense contemplation of the work, the sense of compression and dilation of time—and, in the end, a loss of sense of time—is striking and, at the risk of sounding New Age, uplifting.
symphony, which uses the four movements of the Sinfonia IV as prelude, interludes, and postlude for a presentation of the other three in sequence, is offered as the first seven tracks. Each of the three earlier sinfonias can be heard alone—a single compact movement with contrasting sections—as intended by the composer. Finally, the Sinfonia IV is presented here in separate form as well, so it can be heard in sequence without programming of the player. The several hours I have devoted to these works have been hugely rewarding. Each sinfonia in isolation creates a different impression than when heard as part of the larger work; each movement reveals a different character when played in the different combinations. Fascinating.
There is a very fine 2004 release of the four string sinfonias on Dacapo, performed by the Danish Radio Sinfonietta conducted by Hannu Koivula. That was the recording by which I got to know these luminous works, and I still like it a lot. This new recording has, however, become my preferred version. Owain Arwel Hughes, who has already produced recordings of the 13 Holmboe symphonies for BIS, is even more sensitive to the ebb and flow of the work(s) than his predecessor, and his Camarata Wales is even warmer and more expressive. The engineering and presentation are superb. What more can I say? Urgently recommended.
FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
Works on This Recording
Kairos, Op. 73 by Vagn Holmboe
Owain Arwel Hughes
Period: 20th Century
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