Holten has twin
careers as a composer and as a conductor. In the UK I suspect
that it is his work as a guest conductor with the BBC Singers
that has brought him the most visibility. He also seems to have
developed a fruitful relationship with Chandos who have issued
this disc of Holten’s choral music.
Holten states in
his introduction that in the last 15 years he has ‘hardly written
any orchestral music at all, possibly due to the fact that my
tonal style of writing has not really seemed politically correct
to the bodies commissioning orchestral music in Denmark.’
The disc opens with
the earliest piece, the Tallis Variations of 1976, for
choir and 9 solo strings. The variations are on a theme from
Tallis’s Lamentations. Holten uses the choir and instrumental
ensemble to complement each other: the strings play vigorous
contrapuntal variations whereas the choir are more lyric and
distant, closer to Tallis’s world perhaps.
Wisdom and Folly,
the piece which gives the disc its title, dates from 1993 and
consists of settings of three texts from the Old Testament.
The first, from Proverbs, describes different animals and their
strange habits; the second, from the Song of Songs, describes
sensual love; the third, from Lamentations, details the evils
of war. With such a mix of subjects it is tricky to determine
what Holten thinks of as wisdom and what folly, but he sets
the lovely text from the Song of Songs for a beautifully long-breathed
soprano solo, gently accompanied by the choir. This is an accomplished
piece of choral writing. Holten fully utilises the potential
for contrast between the solo soprano and the more vigorous
sections for choir alone. The final piece, describing the devastations
of war makes a truly powerful close.
writing can be melodic and is undoubtedly tonal, it has an interesting
edge to it and is certainly not soft-centred. I suspect also,
that these accomplished pieces are also rather good to sing.
and Ego flos campi were both written for the Danish National
Girls Choir. Psalm 104 uses a Danish text and Holten
creates a powerful, dramatic piece which utilises the beautifully
clear textures of the girls’ voices. Ego flos campi sets
the Latin text and here Holten writes music full of melodic,
harmonic and rhythmic interest.
is written for the unusual forces of choir and trombone. Tune
and plot are based on a famous medieval Danish folk-ballad.
The story, which Holten treats in a remarkably dramatic, even
operatic way, concerns the way Ebbe Skammelsøn’s brother steals
Ebbe’s fiancé and how Ebbe wreaks dramatic revenge on his return.
The tune of the folk ballad threads its way through the piece,
but Holten is imaginative in his treatments, adding a number
of soloists: all taken by choir members. The trombone feels
a little underused at times, but does get a couple of superb
cadenzas. Holten uses the instrument to convey Ebbe’s feelings.
This is a fascinating piece and the Danish National Choir/DR
enter into the spirit both musically and dramatically.
was written for the professional Canadian choir Pro Coro Canada,
based in Edmonton, Alberta. The piece sets texts by the Icelandic/Canadian
poet Stephan G. Stephansson (1853–1927). Stephansson is popular
in Alberta, where he is read in parallel English/Icelandic editions;
on this recording the choir sing in Icelandic. The first movement
is a hauntingly evocative depiction of snow; the second a powerful
image of storm raging round a mountain. Holten uses double forces
for this: the choir representing the immutable peak and the
soloists (or 2nd choir) depicting the flurrying weather.
The final piece
on the disc is Triumf att finnas till, setting a text
by the Finnish-Swedish poet Edith Södergran. Holten ably conveys
the poet’s experience of standing alone under the sun, being
part of the cosmos, feeling eternity flowing through one’s veins.
All the pieces on
the disc are premiere recordings though First Snow has
already been recorded in English. Holten is well served by his
choirs, both of which here give outstanding performances. The
clarity of tone of the girls’ choir is truly admirable and the
Danish National is one of Europe’s outstanding vocal groups.
I just hope that this disc entices a few choirs outside Denmark
to try performing Holten’s work.