WORKS: Preludes for Sinfonietta, Vol. 1: To the Unsettled Weather; To a Living Stone; To a Dolphin,
PERFORMER: Athelas Sinfonietta, Copenhagen/Giordano Bellincampi
CATALOGUE NO: 8.224123
The 20th-century Danish composer Vagn Holmboe isn’t nearly as well known as he ought to be in English-speaking countries. In a sense he was his own worst enemy. As a composer he rarely went out of his way to ingratiate, seduce, shock or unsettle. If you want to find out what Holmboe is really about – to discover the expressive and intellectual riches, the gently Haydnish humour – you have to meet him at least halfway: concentrate, and be prepared to listen through each piece a couple of times before the melodic shapes, polyphonic subtleties and play of colours reveal their deeper logic.
In different ways that’s true of all the pieces on this disc. The titles aren’t always helpful: sometimes they read more like whimsical afterthoughts than guides to the essential musical matter. What the beautiful cello solo in Op. 184/8 has to do with the Victoria Embankment is hard to say, even with the cellist’s later (spoken!) explanation. But the muted, shifting string and woodwind timbres of Op. 168/3 could well be light filtered though the leaves of a maple tree; and To a Dolphin does have something of the sea-creature’s elegant playfulness, right through to the surprise final note – pianissimo, on celesta. Giordano Bellincampi and the Athelas Sinfonietta sound as though they’ve lived with this music long enough to get well below the surface. The recordings are well-balanced, though brass and percussion tend to be a bit recessed. Stephen Johnson