Monday, August 16, 2010

The Complete String Quartets of Vagn Holmboe

Up until recently I knew next to nothing about Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996) in terms of his string quartets. That is until I happily got a chance to review the new 7-CD set of his complete quartet output (The Complete String Quartets, The Kontra Quartet [DaCapo 8.207001]).

The quality and breadth of the music, written over many years time, and the sterlingly enthusiastic reading given by the Kontra Quartet have made a believer of me. This is a major figure in the modern extension of the genre. Throughout Vagn Holmboe manages to be consistently inventive, wholly idiomatic to the resources of the instruments at hand and their combination, and original sounding at the same time.

Following the chronology of these 22 works shows Vagn Holmboe gradually yet completely mastering his approach. The comparison might be made with Bartok and Carter, and it would not be amiss. All three composers have in common the very craftsman-like building up of of each work through carefully applied compositional techniques. And in the end each composer's final result transcends any structural scaffolding that supported any given work's creation. Vagn Holmboe's modernism is not as thoroughgoing as either of the two composers mentioned, but in no way does one feel like this is not music of its time.

With a virtual treasure trove of musical riches such as this, one does not assimilate its contents overnight. I will need to devote many more happy hours before I get a full grasp on what Vagn Holmboe has left us. Of the Kontra Quartet's impassioned interpretations of these gems and of the importance of the body of work itself I have no doubt. Here is one of 20th Century classical's better kept secrets. I am happy that this fine box set will make it possible for all to hear definitive versions of the complete corpus from beginning to end.

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