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Simeon ten HOLT (1923-2012)
Canto Ostinato (1976-1979)
Nederlands Saxofoon Octet
rec. 2019, Cunerakerk, Rhenen, the Netherlands

Best known for performances on various numbers of pianos, Simeon ten Holt’s now iconic minimalist Canto Ostinato has been recorded on a wide variety of instruments, Jeroen van Veen’s Canto XL box set an inviting starting point for new sonorities (review). A saxophone octet will never qualify as the ‘keyboard instruments’ specified by the composer, but with versions for harp (review) and who knows what else around these days I think we’ve passed that point of detail.

The Dutch Saxophone Octet is a young ensemble founded in 2014 by recently graduated players, and Canto Ostinato one of the first pieces they took to concert venues. Arranged by saxophonist Stefan de Wijs, the booklet note points out a difference in playing with eight musicians rather than between one and four: “our Canto has far more opinions… [and] each player brings his or her personality and colour. Together, we form an organic machine with organic components that communicate closely with each other. At one time everybody follows an initiative in articulation in dynamics, at another time, one player goes solo against the rest. But each time it goes forward, and then it retreats; it builds tension, and then it retreats. In eternity.”

Canto Ostinato is composed in 106 sections, each of which can be repeated any number of times. Any ensemble will have its own way of signalling when a new section is to commence, and this ensemble’s rhythmic and dynamic unity is excellent throughout. As much as the individuality of the players, it is the sonority of each of the different saxophones that gives this version its special quality. Articulation from reeds offers both rhythmic attack and absence of attack, so that the ‘ostinato’ element is full of melodic contrast and fascinating layers. Melodic elements can become truly legato such as the theme that enters in track 4, which comes as a pleasant surprise in this work and delivering a moment of real climax. This is of course a clear difference in the approach possible from the piano, and it will be up to you to decide which you prefer, or if you even have a preference – both seem entirely legitimate.

With a dancing tempo which keeps its momentum and with plenty of little details that emerge and I certainly hadn’t noticed as much in the piano versions I’ve heard, this is far more than just a recording for the Canto Ostinato completist. I particularly like the way the closer intervals interact and quasi-resolve. Certain sections call up new associations, and you might catch yourself thinking of Michael Nyman when the lower instruments come to the fore, or Wim Mertens with the soprano saxophone sonorities. The recording is nicely balanced and there is reasonable distance between the listener and the instruments, but this to my ears is a more ‘wide awake’ version of this work than some of the piano recordings I’ve heard, where the temptation is to turn the volume down a bit and have some dreamtime. I imagine that you will be less likely to find yourself entering a meditative state with eight saxophones, and this is by no means a bad thing.

Dominy Clements

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