Notes and Editorial Reviews
Canto Ostinato. Natalon
. Aforisme II. Solo Devil’s Dances I–IV. Eadem Sed Aliter
Jeroen van Veen (pn)
BRILLIANT 9434 (5 CDs: 320:09)
This set is designated as
Simeon ten Holt: Solo Piano Music Volumes I-V
, so one assumes that another release will follow it in due course. This is good news to those of us who have been bitten by the ten Holt bug, and who are snapping up every
release that becomes available. In the United States, the situation is now much better than it was just a few years ago, and it is better, in large part, due to the efforts of pianist Jeroen van Veen (and Brilliant Classics), who, with colleague pianists, and by himself, has been busily recording ten Holt’s often mammoth works for one or multiple pianos. He is not the only world-class pianist to be interested in ten Holt’s music, however, but we will get to that point later.
35:6, I had a lot to say about
, albeit in a performance by two pianists, namely van Veen and his wife, Sandra. This was included in van Veen’s
Minimal Piano Collection, Volumes X-XX
set (Brilliant Classics 9171). I’m going to beg the editor’s indulgence by repeating all of it here:
Simeon ten Holt’s
, [is] an even more large-scale classic that occupied the composer between 1976 and 1979, and a work that has attained a fair measure of popularity, at least in Europe. (I think its time will come in the United States; all it needs is the right set of circumstances.) Like several of ten Holt’s works,
gives its performers plenty of flexibility. The score states the composer’s preference for performances with four pianos, but he has enthusiastically endorsed Jeroen and Sandra van Veen’s two-piano realization presented here, and it also has been performed with twelve pianists on five pianos! (Other keyboard instruments are possible too.) The score has 106 sections. Performers can use their own discretion concerning dynamics, articulation, the number of repetitions, and the use and combination of alternative parts. It can last for a half hour or longer than two. The composer writes, “A performance of
is more like a ritual than a concert. The piece is not in a hurry.” For me, three factors lend the work its peculiar magic. The first is related to rhythm. Each bar is in 10/16 time, overlaid with 2/4 to create two groups of 5/16. Each “quintuplet” is subdivided into 2+3 or 3+2. What this creates, in the listener, is the curiously dance-like sensation of even unevenness, if you will. The second factor is melodic. At first, there is no melody, in the usual sense of the word. However, over time, an angelic “canto” starts to coalesce, like a picture puzzle slowly coming together. When this “canto,” after many teasing minutes of development, reaches its maturity, the cumulative effect, if you have been paying attention, is literally awesome. (I never fail to weep when I get to section 74 of
, and I have had a similar experience with
, a ten Holt composition from 20 years later.) Having attained seeming Nirvana, ten Holt (or the performers), then evolves away from it almost immediately, and so
, on this level, becomes a piece about expectation, and not just achievement but also frustration. It’s a very Zen experience. The third factor is related to community. A successful performance of
depends upon communication and coordination among the performers. One senses (in the present performance, and in others I have heard) that a sort of hive mentality is at work, or that one is listening, not just to a ritual, but to a biological process. Much as I love music, I would rarely describe it as organic. For me, there are two prominent exceptions, though: some of Sibelius, and all of Simeon ten Holt.
Of course, the present recording, which dates from the fall of 2012 (like everything else in this collection), removes the third factor enumerated above because all of these are solo performances. I think I understand ten Holt’s preference for performances, at least of
, involving multiple pianos. Played solo, the music remains highly effective, but the ineffable and moving sense of community is absent here. Otherwise, it is striking how similar this new solo recording of
is to the one by van Veen and his wife in the
Minimal Piano Collection
set. The total timing (78:15) is just a minute shorter than its predecessor, and isn’t it convenient that it all fits on one CD? (A four-piano version recorded in the ’80s and released by Composer’s Voice/Donemus lasts over 150 minutes and requires three discs, and let me tell you, those disc-changes are a real letdown!) There’s no sense that the music’s development is being rushed, but I think, generally speaking, the more performers one has, the longer it takes to perform it effectively. In a review of piano music by Philip Glass (also in this issue), I commented that van Veen was a more subjective performer than the composer himself. In ten Holt’s music, however, I find that van Veen is less personal—which I suppose is another way of saying less romantic—than other pianists who have recorded it, namely Ivo Janssen (on Void), and on the aforementioned three-CD extravaganza, Gerard Bouwhuis, Gene Carl, Cees van Zeeland, and Arielle Vernède. Still, I have every reason to believe that van Veen’s playing realizes the composer’s intentions completely.
So, where this new release really comes into its own is in the remaining four discs, because this is great music too, and there is less competition. (In some cases, I think, there is none at all, at least on disc.)
Solo Devil’s Dance I
was composed in 1959 and lasts only 4:10. The remaining three works in this series are much later (1986, 1990, and 1998, respectively) and much longer too: 67:43, 45:55, and 38:41. The first is an etude whose basis is an essentially unrelenting triple rhythm passed from one hand to the other, with a—well, impish counterpoint. No surprise: It sounds utterly unlike anything else on these discs, but one can sense the presence of ten Holt’s mind, even if one can’t exactly hear ten Holt’s voice. With the second, we are back in familiar, i.e., minimalist, territory. An odd, nervous rhythm and a melodic pattern are quickly established, and over the course of 67 minutes it is developed. With Philip Glass, one senses that his favorite geometric shape is a square. Ten Holt, on the other hand, probably was enamored of pentagons and heptagons.
Solo Devil’s Dance II
is jazzy, without ever turning into jazz, and eternally unsettled. As in
, tension rises, is dissipated, and rises again; Glass is rarely this dramatic. It sounds like a terrible finger-buster for any pianist, but I imagine stamina and concentration are even bigger issues. Fortunately, listeners don’t have to fear for the fingers. If they are receptive, their concentration should be stimulated by the ever changing but always the same landscape of shifting accents, phrase lengths, and by each new section of the score (there are 111!) in which a new puzzle piece, or a new clue (if you will) is added. Kees Wieringa’s version of this work can be downloaded as an mp3 from Amazon. I haven’t heard more than an excerpt—I have yet to feel that downloaded mp3s are worth my time and money, so any comparisons I make with mp3s in this review are based solely on brief excerpts—but for what it’s worth, Wieringa’s version is only 28 seconds longer. Ivo Janssen’s mp3 is only half as long, and is a little slower.
Solo Devil’s Dance III
is built on similar plans, but it strikes me as a more genial piece. If its predecessor is obsessive, it is cheerfully industrious, as if one were overlooking a sort of musical factory in which the workers are notes and their products are phrases and successively larger musical structures. The music burbles along happily, and it really does seem to dance. One wonders if the melodic material’s resemblance, at times, to Till’s theme from
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche
was accidental. Otherwise, there is nothing demonic here! In fact, extended sections in the piano’s stratosphere suggest fairies, perhaps from
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
, more than anything horned. Wieringa’s mp3 is almost 20 minutes shorter, as he moves through the work’s 77 (!) sections!
What makes the
Solo Devil’s Dances
demonic, perhaps, is the demands that they place on the performer. (Van Veen is certainly up to their various challenges.) An additional demonic element that appears in
Solo Devil’s Dance IV
is a fixation with the interval of a tritone, the “diabolus in musica.” This piece is a particularly cruel task for the pianist, as it is fast, lengthy, and more intricate in its patterning than its predecessors. If
Solo Devil’s Dance II
is obsessive, this last member of the family carries obsession to its most driven extremes. It’s an etude from hell. At 18: 14, Ivo Janssen’s mp3 of this work is only half the length of van Veen’s performance, and he adopts a somewhat slower tempo, so clearly he takes fewer repeats than van Veen. (As I mentioned above, in my description of
, ten Holt’s scores generally give performers a lot of latitude.) This work contains 89 “separate musical objects,” which I suppose is just another way of indicating “sections.” This was ten Holt’s final work, although he did not die until 2012.
Earlier, I used the phrase, “ever changing but always the same.” That is a rough English translation of the Latin phrase
Eadem Sed Aliter
, the title of a work in 113 sections from 1995 also included in this collection. To quote from the booklet note (van Veen’s?), “the left hand is shifted two sixteenths from the right hand—this creates a big challenge for the thumbs of both hands, like in the music of Franz Liszt where the thumbs were first used to play melodies. The ping-pong-style playing with accents, together with building layers (getting louder and softer), turn this into an interesting piece.” The music has a plaintive quality, as if it were begging to be released from its unceasing activity and lack of resolution (harmonic and otherwise). As with the other works in this collection, I can’t even begin to imagine the endurance and concentration required to perform it, and van Veen has both my admiration and my sympathy! An mp3 by Janssen is a few minutes shorter (33: 49), and in this work, his tempo is even faster than van Veen’s. Madness!
The two remaining works date from the 1970s.
(1974) is receiving its first recording here. It is, in a sense, the seed that produced
, as it is a 6/8 version of the
melody, with an accompaniment of broken chords (imagine a barcarolle.) The Chopinesque bit of sweetness is just four minutes long, and, if a score were to be published, I predict it would quickly appear on every third teenage piano student’s recital.
in E also is atypical. There are five movements in contrasting tempos and moods, and ranging from four to 11 minutes in length. The material in each movement is characteristic of ten Holt, but its development is far more concise. Like
, this is ten Holt “lite,” although I don’t mean to denigrate it with that adjective, only to imply that it is more accessible to performers and listeners who might not generally be interested in Minimalism or “contemporary music,” whatever that is.
The booklet contains, in addition to unsigned notes about some (not all, unfortunately) of the works, a short essay about the composer himself, and about van Veen as an interpreter of his music. This originally appeared in
33:5 and is written by Alan Swanson, who took advantage of the opportunity to bang the drum for ten Holt before I did. I’m glad he did. Since I discovered it a few years ago, Simeon ten Holt’s music has become important to me; it has given me great intellectual and emotional satisfaction. I am very happy that Jeroen van Veen’s advocacy, not least through these recordings, has made it easier for new audiences to become exposed to it. Please, however you do it, introduce yourself to Simeon ten Holt.
FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle
Works on This Recording
Canto ostinato by Simeon ten Holt
Jeroen van Veen (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1979; Netherlands (Holland
Natalon in E by Simeon ten Holt
Jeroen van Veen (Piano)
Aforisme II by Simeon ten Holt
Jeroen van Veen (Piano)
Solodevilsdance IV by Simeon ten Holt
Jeroen van Veen (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
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