Simeon TEN HOLT (b.1923)
Canto Ostinato (1976-1979) [72:25]
Assia Cunego (harp)
rec. Michael-Kirche, Bremen, 25 June, 17 July 2007
ETCETERA KTC 1398 [72:25]

The Etcetera label now has a healthy selection of choices for Simeon Ten Holt’s elegantly minimalist Canto Ostinato. The best known is probably the four piano version recorded by Gerard Bouwhuis, Gene Carl, Arielle Vernède, Cees van Zeeland, which made a big impact on the Dutch classical charts in the late 1980s. There is also a two piano version which I haven’t heard, but I can seriously recommend the version included on a usefully comprehensive Brilliant Classics 11 CD box, Cat. 7795, with the ‘Complete Multiple Piano Works’ played by Irene Russo, Fred Oldenburg, and Sandra and Jeroen van Veen.

As has been commented elsewhere, the disadvantage of many of these recordings is that they are spread over more than one disc, so the continuity of the music is invariably disturbed at some point. With Assia Cunego we get a ‘free rendering’ of the piece which fits neatly onto one CD. The score consists of relatively few bars of music which are repeated and layered, creating shifting harmonic and rhythmic patterns and relationships over the Ostinato of the title. This means that, with fewer repetitions and taking away the transitions which shift material between instruments, the music is more compact, though by no means compressed. The mesmeric qualities of the music transfer beautifully to a single harp, enhancing the lyrical nature of the basic material, giving it a softer feel, while at the same time preserving the sense of overlap through the natural sustain of the strings of the harp and its own inner resonance. While this music invites a generally gentle playing style on the piano, there is no denying he essentially percussive nature of the instrument. One of the strengths of the harp in this regard is that the sound can grow out of silence. I wondered if my CD player or amplifier was on the blink at the start of the disc. The dynamics on this recording range through really quiet playing on to quite powerful sounds - all however still with that fine, rounded resonance which always preserves a feeling of ethereal wonder in the essential nature of the harp. The wide dynamic undulations which provide a sense of contrast through the recording generate that sense of climax and repose which is a part of the piece, and the movement though the ranges of the instrument - low to high, rich to sparkling, tease the ear with a constant flow of dreamy delicacy. There are some moments of real magic, and to my ears these often come from the mild dissonances and extended moments of almost-not quite-almost-there resolution. Track 5, Sections 56-73 up to about the 6th minute is a case in point: the interval of a minor second being introduced and taking on a constantly changing power and significance as the harmonies rise to meet its minor key cadence. The final sections of that particular track could be numerous guitars, as the harmonies take on a deeper, distinctly Andalucian feel. Having thus had our aural hormones set vibrating, track 6 finally introduces the melodic theme around which the entire piece ultimately orbits. If you hadn’t fallen in love with the piece already then you are guaranteed to melt like a sorbet in sunshine.

The Etcetera label is a reliable source of high quality recordings, and this is a very nice sounding disc indeed. The resonance of the church acoustic is just right for the music and the sound of the harp. Anyone fascinated by the music but finding the sound of multiple pianos hard on the ears after a while should give this alternative a try. I have no doubt that this canny production will soon be finding its way onto soulful and nostalgic moments on numerous films and documentaries. With Assia Cunego’s superbly sensitive playing it deserves any such success 100%.

Dominy Clements