Victor Carr Jr.
, June 2001
"In his string quartets Vagn Holmboe employs a sophisticated style that largely eschews conventional melodic devices in favor of a predominantly motivic technique of construction. While at first this may give the impression of an overall sameness to the movements (or even entire works), careful and repeated listening reveals the inner logic and deliberate inter-connectiveness between his sometimes fleeting motifs. A striking feature of String Quartet No. 16 (1981) is its insistent use of minor-third and perfect-fourth intervals (a favorite device of Carl Nielsen, especially in his E-flat string quartet), which gives the music a relaxed, pastoral atmosphere. It's not all napping-in-the-hammock though, as the second and fourth movements generate plenty of energy. Quartet No. 18 ('Giornata'), composed a year later, continues in the same harmonic vein, but the expansion to six movements, each ingeniously playing off the other in a manner that recalls Bartók, creates a different pattern of tension and resolution.
"Svaerm (Swarm), an arrangement for string quartet of 11 violin duos, was composed after Holmboe's last numbered quartet (No. 20). It is a fascinatingly varied work, one in which the string quartet frequently plays as four soloists, their parts weaving in and out of, and juxtaposed against, each other. Throughout Holmboe explores any number of textures and moods while maintaining a high level of emotional expressiveness. Emotion also is a prime constituent of the Quartetto Sereno, Holmboe's last quartet, left incomplete at his death and finished by his pupil Per Norgard. Its brief two movements are more volatile than its title suggests, with even the adagio first movement interrupted by an allegro middle section. That these works, which do not yield their treasures easily, communicate as they do on this recording is a testament to the extraordinary devotion, professionalism, and enthusiasm of the Kontra Quartet, which plays with complete confidence and mastery throughout, enlivening the music as only a thoroughly dedicated ensemble can. DaCapo's vividly natural recording captures the excellence of the performers, though it would have benefited from a little more warmth.