Holmboe: Preludes for Sinfonietta, Vol. 1: To the Unsettled Weather; To a Living Stone; To a Dolphin,

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COMPOSERS: Holmboe
LABELS: Dacapo
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.

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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