A New Vagn Holmboe Quartet Cycle Begins

Review by: Jed Distler

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Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Vagn Holmboe’s 20 numbered string quartets constitute one of the 20th century’s most substantial and rewarding bodies of work in the genre. Collectors have come to know these compositions largely through the Kontra Quartet’s complete recorded cycle on Dacapo. The label now launches a new Holmboe project with the young Nightingale Quartet, whose Rued Langgaard quartet cycle set reference standards. In every way they match the Kontra’s technical polish, ensemble discipline, and textual integrity. Yet their interpretations sometimes differ.

For example, the Nightingale’s leaner spelling out of the gorgeously dense chords in the third-movement introduction of the First quartet contrasts to the Kontra’s massive and fuller-bodied impact. On the other hand, the second movement’s slithery Presto passages gain from the Nightingale’s faster tempo and lighter articulation.

Although the Third quartet’s five-movement “arch” form (slow-fast-moderate-fast-slow) owes an obvious debt to Bartók’s own Third quartet, Holmboe’s somewhat sunnier harmonic language goes its own way. It’s a toss-up between the Kontra’s intensely expansive, dynamically varied opening Lento and the Nightingale’s cooler temperament, brisker pace, and precisely calibrated attacks and releases. Some listeners may prefer the Nightingale’s supple scampering in the Allegro assai to the Kontra’s slightly heavier reading, yet the latter’s broader tempo allows the occasional “droning” bass lines to resonate more effectively.

My colleague David Hurwitz describes Holmboe’s late quartets as more complex but also more personal and concentrated, and that’s especially true of his four-movement No. 15. The Kontra’s slower unfolding of the fourth-movement introduction conveys a sense of mystery and otherworldliness that I feel digs deeper than the Nightingale’s drier reserve. But once the Allegro kicks in, the Nightingale’s gaunter, crisper approach better enlivens Holmboe’s knotty contrapuntal writing.

If this first volume is any indication, the Nightingale Quartet Holmboe cycle will complement rather than supersede the Kontra Quartet, and that’s all to our advantage. And to Holmboe’s advantage, of course!



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Recording Details:

Album Title: String Quartets, Vol. 1
Reference Recording: Kontra Quartet (Dacapo)


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