There is a certain amount of overlap in this release with Jeroen van Veen’s very excellent box of Simeon Ten Holt’s Solo Piano Music (see review) doubling CD 1 from this set. If you already have the Brilliant Classics 11 CD box, Cat. 7795, with the ‘Complete Multiple Piano Works’ you will also already have this four piano version on CDs 3 and 4. As a one-stop resource for most of your Canto Ostinato needs this huge set does however look like a very promising prospect indeed. I say ‘most of’ since there are other versions to be had, on harp for instance, but you can’t have everything.
Canto Ostinato has become a popular minimal-music classic, and Jeroen van Veen has been one of its main supporters and performers for many years. This is music which evolves through repetition over time, but with textures of sonority and a tonal narrative which can keep the listener involved as well as mesmerised. The piano versions are pretty much what one would expect, though each recording has its own qualities. Starting with solo piano, CD 1 is a superbly produced studio recording with a nice acoustic halo to help oil the strands of sound. Jeroen van Veen’s playing here somehow makes it sound as if there is more than one piano, and this is helped by an enhanced stereo effect in the recording. The two-piano version on CD 2 is given quite a respectable dose of concert-hall acoustic, so atmosphere and detail combine to create a gorgeous sonic environment into which you can dive and revel like a child in a ball-bath.
Four pianos was the combination which launched this work on record in the late 1980s, and with a slower pace the recording here is more meditative than the other piano versions. Spread over two discs rather than three on the Etcetera label this version has its advantages, though real fans of the work will want that classic earlier recording as well. Kirk McElhearn mentions comparative harshness with the Brilliant Classics recording though I don’t hear it in this edition, nor does there seem to have been any remastering from one set to the next. Listening properly pays dividends, and there are numerous magical moments, such as in the build-up during track 10 (CD 3) and its transition to track 11. These are all elements which go together in laying out this huge musical narrative which I think every performance should have.
CDs 5 and 6 have a version new to me, a live performance of a concert in which three pianos are joined by an organ. The addition of this sustained sonority almost inevitably delivers associations with a younger Philip Glass, but the character of the music is maintained, and there are again some remarkable moments. Have a listen to track 4 on CD 5 and hear what added low organ pedal tones do to the ongoing piano ostinati. Such exploratory added dimensions are what this kind of performance is all about, and I think the results easily speak for themselves. There is also a surprising place where the pianos stop and the harmonies are introduced by the organ alone, making us realise just how churchy and chorale-like the chords are.
Simeon ten Holt marked the score of Canto Ostinato as ‘for keyboard instruments’, so Aart Bergwerff’s organ version on CD 7 can be counted as entirely legitimate. Played on the 1839 Holtgräve organ in the St Lebuïnuskerk in Deventer this recording has its own special character just in terms of sound. At times the musical gestures easily remind us of Romantic organ composers in their gentler movements, the ‘continual song’ of the piece rendered with nicely subtle lyricism by the performer and in his choice of registrations. The sheer dynamic volume and timbral variety of the instrument is also explored in this version, and there are passages of genuine drama which take us far beyond the world of piano ensembles. This version is a joy from beginning to end and I’m glad to have experienced it.
CD 8 takes us back to a live recording in 1999, with two pianos paired with two marimbas. This is a shortened version of the work, but again we are treated to some truly special sounds. The marimbas add colour and balance nicely with the pianos, which end up sounding more percussive by comparison. There is a risk of turning the piece into ‘Canto Ostinato in Africa’ with this kind of instrumentation but I think this is avoided by the subtlety of the arrangement. Have a listen to track 4 and see if you can hear the 14th century chimes of the Barbara Church in Culemborg joining in.
CD 9 is all marimba, recorded in multitrack layers. This creates a lovely effect, though there is no flexibility in the click-track tempo so there is a certain mechanical feel to the basic motor of the whole thing. There is however plenty of variety in timbre to keep the music alive. There’s nothing not to like in this version though I don’t find it quite as inspiring as the organ recording. CD 10 is an entirely different beast however, with two prepared pianos seeing Simeon ten Holt meet John Cage. If you like the workings of strange machines and the sculptural imaginings of Jean Tinguely then this version will probably appeal greatly, but don’t expect to find the same hypnotic effect as with most of the other versions here. The ‘prepared’ nature of the pianos, not elaborated on in the booklet, turns the pianos into percussion mills filled with fascinating sounds, but with little of the lyrical ‘song’ of the original left over. This certainly makes a change and I have to admit liking this recording a lot. It was used in a ballet production in 2012 and I can imagine it being perfect for theatre. If you like John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes but wish he had been more minimalist then this will fill your bag right to the bottom.
The final two discs, CDs 11 and 12 have a new recording using two keyboards running electronic sounds. Simeon ten Holt was interested in electronics and worked on such compositions in the 1970s, and the expansion of Canto Ostinato into a version to which the only real limit has to be that of the imagination has great potential. Van Veen at times acknowledges a period feel with retro electronic piano sounds straight out of 1970s American film scores or Kraftwerk songs, but there are also a wide variety of sounds and effects which bring us pretty much up to date. We will no doubt be hearing this in documentaries about robots and space travel in years to come, and although the effect is a bit ‘Tubular Bells’ this version is also respectful to the score and filled with fascinating detail and contrast.
If you like Canto Ostinato and big boxes full of minimalist marvels then this is the place to be. If you didn’t think you would need nine versions of one piece of music in a single collection, this is the set which will change your mind.
Disc contents & performer details
Canto Ostinato (1976-79) Solo Piano [78:15]
Canto Ostinato Two Pianos [79:11]
Canto Ostinato Four Pianos (I) [79:35]
Canto Ostinato Four Pianos (II) [70:19]
Canto Ostinato Three Pianos and Organ (I) [56:28]
Canto Ostinato Three Pianos and Organ (II) [61:02]
Canto Ostinato Organ [62:50]
Canto Ostinato Two Pianos and Two Marimbas [65:22]
Canto Ostinato Multitrack Marimbas [74:48]
Canto Ostinato Two Prepared Pianos [69:52]
Canto Ostinato Synthesizers (I) [72:22]
Canto Ostinato Synthesizers (II) [73:12]
CDs 1-6, 8, 10-12 Jeroen van Veen (piano and keyboard); CDs 2-6, 8, 10-12 Sandra van Veen (piano and keyboard); CDs 3 and 4, Irene Russo, Fred Oldenburg (piano); CDs 5-7, Aart Bergwerf (organ); CD 8, Esther Doornink (marimba); CDs 8 and 9, Peter Elbertse (marimba).
rec. October 2012 (CD 1), March 2012 (CD 9), September 2010 (CD 10), September-October 2013 (CDs 11 and 12) Studio I, Van Veen Productions, Culemborg; February 2008, Zeeuwse Concertzaal, Middelburg (CD 2); 23-27 May 2005 (CD 3 and 4), 4 July 2007 (CD 5 and 6), 3 September 1999 (CD 8), Barbara Church, Culemborg; 20-21 May 2007, St Lebuïnuskerk, Deventer (CD 7); March 2012.