Friday, April 27, 2012

Eduard Tubin, Without The Color And Astringency

Among the discs Andrew and I have been listening to of late is a BIS disc of brass concertos by Danish composer Vagn Holmboe.

One of the constantly-uttered clichés of our day is that Holmboe was Denmark’s finest post-Nielsen composer, which very well may be true—but which hardly signifies that Holmboe was a composer of any importance.

Holmboe wrote in a bland Neo-Classical idiom, much like American composers Paul Creston, Peter Menin and Walter Piston, all three of whom were Holmboe’s contemporaries—and all three of whom wrote music that could not be picked out of a police lineup. Well-crafted impersonality defines the music of Creston, Menin and Piston, and such characterization seems apt for the music of Holmboe’s brass concertos, too: the concertos are pleasant but totally unmemorable, as satisfying as a meal of Chinese fortune cookies.

Some quarters have lavished praise on Holmboe’s symphonies. Whatever their merits, the Holmboe symphonies remain unheard outside Denmark and have never entered the repertories of important conductors.

Holmboe’s three brass concertos—for trumpet (1948), trombone (1950) and tuba (1976)—feature much skillful writing for solo instrument, but the music itself lacks character, personality and profile. Thematic materials are undistinguished, developments are rudimentary, orchestral writing and instrumentation are unimaginative—and, most fatally, the music is bewilderingly unexpressive. Are all Danes this featureless?

The Trumpet Concerto is the weakest of the brass concertos. Scored for strings and two horns, its three movements are comprised of a lightweight sonata-form first movement, a forgettable two-minute slow movement, and a Rondo Finale surely meant to be catchy yet anything but.

Things improve with the Trombone Concerto, also in three movements but scored for full orchestra. While the themes remain stubbornly bland and unmemorable, the composer provides a darker coloration; a cloud is occasionally allowed to pass by, which gives the music a suggestion of incident as well as a small dose of flavor.

The Tuba Concerto is far and away the finest of the lot. A one-movement fantasia in all but name, it is the only one of the Holmboe brass concertos that holds the listener’s attention from beginning to end. With a wider expressive range than the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto (a one-note pastoral affair), the Holmboe Tuba Concerto may be the finest concertante work for the instrument. It is supposed to be phenomenally difficult to play.

A short work for tuba and orchestra, Intermezzo Concertante, from 1987, closes out the disc.

The performances on the BIS disc, with one exception, are very fine.

The performance of Håkan Hardenberger is the exception. He plays the notes of the Trumpet Concerto cleanly, but he varies his coloration too little and plays as if he had never been more bored in his life. His performance resolutely refuses to come to life.

Christian Lindberg is magnificent in the Trombone Concerto. The way he alters his tone, drawing sounds from his instrument that no trombone should be capable of producing, is one of the marks of a great artist. I would like to hear Lindberg in this work live.

Jens Bjørn-Larsen, an artist unknown to me, is soloist in the two works for tuba and orchestra. His tone is beautiful, and more varied than one has a right to expect from his instrument.

The supporting artists on the BIS disc are the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra and Welsh conductor Owain Arwel Hughes.

The performances were recorded in Denmark in June 1996. The disc was issued in Europe in December 1996 and in the U.S. in January 1997. It remains in print in the U.S.

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