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Bo HOLTEN (b. 1948) Kejserens nye klœder (The Emperor’s New Clothes) (2004) [23:32]
Oboe Concerto (1995) [28:14] Tusmørkets viser (Songs of Dusk) (1987) [26:00]
Gert Henning-Jensen (tenor), Palle Knudsen (baritone), Vocal Ensemble Musica Ficta
Max Artved (oboe)
Christine Nonbo Andersen (soprano), Morten Østergaard (bassoon)
Odense Symphony Orchestra/Bo Holten
rec. 2019, Carl Nielsen Salen, Odense Koncerthus, Denmark
First recordings DACAPO 6.220701 SACD [77:47]
Bo Holten is one of the most prolific of today’s Danish composers, besides being also active as choral and orchestral conductor. His discography in both categories is comprehensive, but the three works on the present disc are premiere recordings and covering three decades it’s also a retrospective.
The first work, the concert opera Kejserens nye klaeder (The Emperor’s New Clothes) is the most recent. It was commissioned in 2004 for the bicentenary of his compatriot Hans Christian Andersen’s birth in 2005. His choice of this particular story was, as quoted in the liner notes, ‘because the relevance of this story is so strong that I always wondered why nobody had done it before – not successfully anyway’. Eva Sommestad Holten’s libretto draws on Andersen’s own words and miniature opera is designed to be easily performed by symphony orchestras with a girls’ choir and two male soloists. One of them, a baritone, personifying the Emperor, the two swindlers being sung by the other soloist who sings in both tenor and baritone registers. The Emperor is also narrator and the girls’ chorus (which here is replaced by a small ensemble of adult singers) acts as commentators and onlookers. It is a compact score that fizzes along swiftly and the whole story is over in less than 24 minutes. The musical language is unabashedly tonal, Holten’s credo being: ‘composing without tonal harmony is like painting without colour’. He has a personal touch but borrows features from various influences: a drop of impressionism here, some minimalism there. It all works extremely well without longueurs and the result is a taut buffo comedy with serious undertones – which is almost always the case with Andersen’s stories. There are no extended arias – there is no time for that – but the score is attractive and full of life. The performance is fully worthy of the music. Musica Ficta, the vocal ensemble founded by Holten in 1996, are true professionals, as are of course Gert Henning-Jensen and Palle Knudsen. Both are mainstays at the Royal Opera, Copenhagen and have also important international careers.
Going backwards in time we then hear Holten’s oboe concerto from 1995. It is titled Il Romanesco, since most of the work was composed in Rome and thematically there are also references to the eternal city. The concerto is in one movement, but it is divided into six sections, the first of which is a passacaglia with a theme that is a medieval Roman melody in the Dorian mode, while the second section is an Italian tarantella. The overriding atmosphere of the concerto is pastoral and contemplative and it certainly explores the oboe’s capacity to weave beautiful melodious threads. Here and there it is challenged by other instrumental solos and there are moments where the idyll is temporarily broken. As Holten says in the notes: ‘It is the basic truth of being a human being, that comedy and tragedy are the front-side and back-side of everything. All of human life and animal life has to face this constantly, however privileged a life we lead.’ In the main, however, the tragedy of life is underplayed in this concerto and what stays in one’s mind after listening to this work is a sense of serene beauty and forgiveness. Max Artved’s solo playing can hardly be surpassed.
Going further back, to 1987, we meet another woodwind soloist, in a prominent role, bassoonist Morten Østergaard in Tusmørkrets viser (Songs of Dusk), where soprano Christine Nonbo Andersen plays first fiddle. The eight songs in this song cycle follow each other seamlessly in a continuous stream. The poems are by Sophus Claussen (1865 – 1931), a poet who lived for many years in France and was deeply influenced by French poetry. The fourth poem, Spleen of the Moon, is also after Charles Baudelaire. The songs are very different in mood, even though there is a lot of darkness. A general feature is the high tessitura of the song line, which in a way is an antidote to the darkness, and while the bassoon often plays in the upper register of the instrument the basic tone is darkish so the two soloists are counterparts. The opening song, In Spring, has a nice tune and a certain folk song character, and Cavalier Worries is also close to the folk mood but it ends in darkness. Where we feel liberated is in the short You Are Like a Little Kitten …, playful and charming, and the likewise short, Love, jolly and friendly, with the bassoon chattering like a duck in the background. The most enigmatic of the songs is the final one, Spring Song at Christmas, which ties together the end with the opening, but after the long gloomy intro it is filled with chill, which persists in spite of the text talking about balm, mildness, smiling stars and even in the very end ‘Time for celebration, now?’ Listening to the music the only possible answer must be ‘No!’ Apart from this dichotomy the cycle is very attractive, Christine Nonbo Andersen negotiates the stratospheric tessiture with the utmost ease and beautiful tone and Morten Østergaard follows her like a sheepdog accompanying his shepherd.
It has been a pleasure to listen to this retrospective with three very different works from three different decades and savour the many-sidedness of Bo Holten’s compositional genius.