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Simeon TEN HOLT (b.1923)
Canto Ostinato (1976-1979)
Kees Wieringa (piano); Polo de Haas (piano)
rec. 17-18 May 2007, Maria Minor Church, Utrecht
ET’CETERA KTC1367 [75.29]

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Simeon ten Holt is a Dutch composer born in Bergen who is now in his mid-80s. Incidentally he is not to be confused with the British composer Simon Holt or indeed the Horse Racing commentator Simon Holt, but never mind.
 
Canto Ostinato, which incidentally did not receive its first British performance until 8 September 2008 in Cardiff, is one of several works he has written for two pianos. I could also mention ‘Shadow or Prey’(1993-5) and there is another for four pianos ‘Méandres’(1997). He is now a minimalist composer having had two other ‘phases’.
 
He was a pupil of the Belgian composer Jakob van Domselaer who was to prove a strong influence upon him but whose music has never really carried outside Belgium. Holt also took lessons from Honegger and Milhaud. Then he had a serial phase and now, returning mostly to the piano where he started. Like Louis Andriessen he has gone down a minimalist line but one which is very particular to the Dutch composers of his generation. One aspect is the ‘rehabilitation’ of tonality or as the brief booklet notes by Kees Wieringa says “redefining the beauty of the triad and related tonal means” … and I might add modality. For example at Track 36 a delightfully simple and effective modal melody emerges out of the ordinary major/minor tonality of the earlier music and the piece then moves on to a brief chromatic passage.
 
I was initially quite daunted by a CD of 92 continuously playing tracks. Each links into the next and many are extremely short. This I think is a useful idea as each track marks a slight change in the music’s inexorable progress - not in the ostinato rhythm itself or the speed which is established right at the start, but in each slight change of harmony or dynamic, articulation or texture or even of melodic line. The piece unfolds like a leaf in front of your eyes – sorry, ears - and once started you cannot let it go.
 
As you can see from the recording date of 1996 this CD has been released for some time but has only just arrived with MusicWeb International for review. The new cover is now adorned with various pieces of praise and comment. Of the several I would particularly agree with is one from Fanfare “…it is the two pianists who really dazzle. It would be hard to surpass the concentrated power of this version”. I was wondering, only slightly facetiously, if the pianists might get repeated strain injury. In the booklet there are also biographies of the two players. Kees Wieringa writes about the moment he first began to understand Ten Holt’s music as he stared across the sea near the composer’s home and thought of the ‘repeating seas of sound’.
 
We are told that the score of ‘Canto Ostinato’ has the “form of a route which the performers can follow by means of so-called roaming parts that are used ‘ad libitum’”. The composer leaves open the number of performers as well as the total duration and number of repeats. Wieringa adds that “the musicians are also given the freedom as far as dynamics and articulation are concerned”.
 
As you listen, note how various ideas - harmonies and melodies - make a return visit almost as they were at first, but not quite. I wonder however, was this in the composer’s or the performer’s control? It’s worth realizing, if I understand the advertising on the back of the CD booklet correctly, that there is another recording of this work on KTC1317 for four pianos (see review). It would be interesting to know how the material is utilized by the extra players. Indeed I could add that this has been one of those reviews when a score would definitely have been exceedingly useful.
 
Although the music is highly thought-provoking, quite exciting at times, and superbly played I have to say that I may well not play the disc again … and I probably won’t find my life any less rich for this deprivation.
 
Gary Higginson
 


 


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