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Bo HOLTEN (b. 1948)
Tallis Variations (1976) [10.32] (1, 2)
Visdom og Galskab / Wisdom and Folly (1993) [13.10] (2, 3)
Psalm 104 ‘Hvor er dine værker mange, Herre’ (2002) [3.54] (4)
Ego flos campi (2001) [3.49] (4)
Ebbe Sakmmelsøn (2001) [13.25] (2, 5)
First Snow (1996) [6.11] (2, 6, 7, 8, 9)
Triumf att finnas till / Triumph to exist (1995) [8.49 (2)
Klaudia Kidon (soprano) (3)
Sussa Lillesøe (soprano) (6)
Annette Simonsen (alto) (7)
Lars Pedersen (tenor) (8)
Torsten Nielsen (bass) (9)
Jesper Juul Sørensen (trombone) (5)
Strings of Danish National Symphony Orchestra (1)
Danish National Choir/DR (2)
Danish National Girls Choir/DR (4)
Bo Holten (conductor)
rec. Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen; 10-12 June 2003, 9 January 2004, 4 February 2005. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10320 [60.11]



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.

Though Holten’s 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.

Psalm 104 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.

Ebbe Skammelsøn 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.

First Snow 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.

Robert Hugill


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