Bo Holten: Venus' hjul
02 May 2013
I think it would be fair to say that Bo Holten has made his name principally as a fine and versatile conductor, particularly of choral music. Among his many achievements he founded the ensemble Ars Nova in 1979 and conducted them until 1996. Between 1990 and 2005 he was principal guest conductor of the BBC Singers. From 2008 until 2011 he was chief conductor of the Flemish Radio Choir.
Several discs on which he has conducted music by other composers have been received warmly in these pages, including recordings of music by Nielsen, Delius and Emil Reesen. Though he has written a substantial amount of music himself, including symphonies, concertos and operas, recordings of his own compositions seem to have been infrequent, though I have come across one or two short individual choral pieces by him. So it’s interesting to come across a disc devoted entirely to his a cappella choral music.
The Römische Elegien is a setting of two of the twenty such poems by Goethe; Holten has selected numbers 1 and 5. In the first the poet has yet to meet his beloved and views the city of Rome as a dead place, empty and gloomy. Holten’s highly charged music matches these sentiments. The obbligato cello’s music is warmer; perhaps it represents the poet. In the second poem the poet, represented by the baritone, has by now met his love and the music is much more sensual. The cello represents the female while the chorus provides a background. Unlike some other contemporary choral works that I’ve heard which have included an obbligato instrument, I find that the cello part makes a very positive contribution to this score. The music is challenging but far from inaccessible.
Dominus regit me sets Psalm 23 in Latin. Here Holten’s vast experience in early music is to the fore. He deploys intricate polyphony in the opening pages but as the piece progresses the polyphony “funnels down” into homophony. It’s an effective and approachable piece.
I’ve previously come across a choral arrangement of Mahler’s song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen by Clytus Gottwald. I felt a certain vindication when I read in the booklet that Bo Holten, who has conducted that arrangement, was dissatisfied with it because, for one thing it lacks a soloist to make sense of “Ich”; I made a similar point in reviewing a recording of the Gottwald arrangement a few months ago. Unfortunately, in making his own arrangement, which involves a solo singer and unaccompanied choir, Holten hasn’t answered my other objection which is that the vocal line can’t stand out from the accompaniment – as it does in Mahler’s scoring either for piano or orchestral accompaniment – when everyone is singing. Here the baritone soloist makes a pleasing sound but I find his style too forthright and for all the skill of the singers, any sense of fragility in the music – especially at the very end - is lost. Why can’t people simply leave Mahler’s sublime song alone? I don’t feel that Holten’s arrangement is any more appealing than Gottwald’s. This is not for me, I’m afraid.
Infinitely more appealing are the Cantigas d’amigo. These are five medieval Portuguese love poems, in English translations, set for female voices. The songs were originally composed for a girls’ choir and the selected texts convey the innocence of young girls in love. Fresh, innocent textures characterise all these settings, even when, as in the fourth song, the music is slow and dreamy. These are most attractive songs and the only slight criticism I would venture of this excellent performance is that at times, especially in the first song, the words aren’t always clear.
Handel with Care (Variations on Darwin) is nothing if not ingenious. Holten was asked to write some variations on a theme from Handel’s Water Music to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death in 2009. However, Holten, who is a devotee of Charles Darwin, noted that 2009 was not only the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth but also coincided with the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species. He hit on the clever idea of combining some words from Darwin’s memoirs – chanted/recited by the male voices and altos – and some snippets from Messiah and Rinaldo sung by the sopranos of the choir and two soprano soloists. As I say, it’s clever and it may appeal to other listeners rather more than it did to me. Perhaps part of the trouble is that I don’t find that the two elements – the chanted Darwin words, in English, and the Handelian fragments – actually work together.
Rota Veneris furnishes the English title for this album. In this work Holten has once again drawn on his vast experience of music of the past. In this case he’s apparently taken three anonymous fourteenth century motets, given them different medieval words – on the theme of secular love – and then elaborated the music with contemporary harmonic language. The result is both ingenious and attractive. It did occur to me that, given the playing time of the disc, our appreciation of Holten’s skill could have been enhanced if the choir had first sung the original music on which he based his composition. However, Rota Veneris can still be admired and enjoyed without that addition.
Though I have reservations about a couple of the pieces on this programme most of the music is impressive. It’s original, inventive and shows a tremendous affinity for choirs, as you’d expect given Bo Holten’s huge experience as a choral conductor. The performances under the composer’s own direction must surely be definitive. Certainly there need be no reservations on account of the performance standards since the Flemish Radio Choir here shows itself to be a highly accomplished and flexible ensemble. The recorded sound is very good, showing the performances in the best possible light and the well-produced booklet includes a very helpful note. Bo Holten has done a lot to further the cause of other composers on disc and it’s good that here he’s been given the opportunity to blow his own trumpet.
Original, inventive choral music by Bo Holten in splendid performances.