HOLMBOE:  Requiem for Nietzsche
Helge Rønning, tenor; Johan Reuter, baritone; Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Choir/Michael Schønwandt, cond.
DA CAPO 8.224207 (F) (DDD) TT:  51:44
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Jagged. Philosophers since at least David Hume talk mainly to one another and rarely break through to the culture at large. In that sense, Nietzsche is a rock star among philosophers—known by name to the generally-educated, even if generally unread. One doesn't have to assume the burden of actually working through a book by Nietzsche, when one has Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, Shaw's Man and Superman, the detritus of World War II Allied propaganda, and even Superman comic books, TV shows, and movies. One has, at least, heard of an übermensch, even if only book nerds and Ph. D. candidates have actually read The Birth of Tragedy. The limbo of known and not-known has worked against a clear-eyed understanding of this writer. The facts of his life don't help, either, all too easily fitting into a Genius Descends into Madness scenario. Holmboe's Requiem essentially plays this number. If you're after insight into Nietzsche, this really won't provide it. It's a lot like expecting Amadeus to tell you something new or valuable about genius in general or even about Mozart.

One wonders, then, why Holmboe chose this subject. I greatly admire Holmboe's music. This is slightly more chromatic and less contrapuntal than most of the work I've heard. However, it deals in memorable musical ideas, powerfully realized. But what's the aesthetic point? Where's the artistic "buzz?" What would Holmboe, a supremely cogent and supremely balanced artist (a less Nietzsche-like personality is hard to imagine), find to attract his talent? I just don't get it.

Holmboe's text consists of a sequence of eleven sonnets by Danish poet Thornkild Bjørnvig on certain aspects of Nietzsche's life. Not knowing Danish and having approached the sequence only through translation, I sense a really fine poetic mind at work. The images neatly handle complex action, and they are unusual tropes besides. Again, I don't gain much insight into Nietzsche beyond the Genius Goes Mad headline and don't think much of the continual, probably ironic, identification of Nietzsche with Christ, but a lot of poetry's point comes from the "insides" of words and the music words make, both usually lost in translation. While I merely admire the poems, I can easily imagine a Dane moved by them. Perhaps this explains the attraction for Holmboe.

The music works on me like the poetry does. I can admire the quality of the musical ideas, the fact that their distinctive shapes allow me to remember them despite their complexity, and the development of the musical argument. Here and there, I admit, the music even moves me, but not as much as the symphonies, string quartets, or even a "light" work like the recorder concertino.

The performance seems very good. It makes a case for the work. I particularly admire Johan Reuter, the baritone soloist, who has much of the work, a singer who knows how to communicate with an audience. The choral work is knock-out splendid, and the recording handles very well indeed the tricky balances among large forces divided into their own "spheres of influence," a characteristic of Holmboe's symphonic style.

S.G.S. (September 2002)