VAGN HOLMBOE – String Quartet No. 7

Danish composer Vagn Gylding Holmboe [1909-1996] wrote 20 string quartets. I previously discussed a peaceful No. 3 in December 2016. I am now going to consider a more dynamic No. 7.

This work was written in 1964-65 and is in three movements. It offers up a completely different soundscape from No. 3. It opens in an aggressive fashion with the cello very prominent. The other instruments respond to its call. The violin is very shrill and this softens the mood. Now it becomes almost pastoral as the violins converse. This morphs into another cello-driven aggressive passage which does not last long; the violin dialogue returns. This is also brief, and we have a repeat of the cello-led section. The violin dialogue resumes; it’s bitter-sweet. Finally, nearing the end, the cello returns and the movement concludes as it began. This is quite dramatic music.

The next movement begins with a pizzicato section which sets up the violin to flit about as it likes. There is a sense of something scurrying about and the voices hint at atonality. Now there is a change and we have a quietly abstract passage for a while. It doesn’t last and the chaos returns. The pizzicato resumes and proceeds to the end of the movement.

The final movement opens with a longing section, and a sparse melody. It’s very beautiful if you are drawn to abstraction. The violins move forward and the cello provides support. A brief motif is introduced very quietly. The violin returns solo and the motif comes with it, somewhat louder this time. Slowly a chaos takes over, but after a time it fades back into a very sparse section again. The violin predominates for a short while until it is joined by the ensemble, and it jumps into a furious tempo. A dominant cello terminates the mood and we have a solo violin lament. The other voices add a measured support. This is another extraordinary passage, very taut but eminently rewarding. As the end becomes near, all join in for a final flourish to conclude the movement. This is a fine, vigorous work.

Holmboe’s complete quartets have been recorded on the DaCapo label performed by the Kontra Quartet on seven CDs. No. 3 is on Volume 1, and No. 7 on Volume 3. They are also available in a complete box set. As some of the CDs are becoming deleted, you can buy the box set on Amazon UK for less than the price of a single CD. If he appeals to you, go for the box now. You can be sure it won’t be around for long and it’s reasonably priced both on Amazon US and UK.

Surprisingly, the complete box set is on Spotify, and many quartets are on earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Fascinating mood-driven Nordic works.


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