Notes and Editorial Reviews
Composer/conductor Bo Holten is a significant figure in contemporary choral music. With his founding of the vocal ensemble Ars Nova in 1979 he brought both Renaissance and modern music to the attention of new audiences, while with his own music he showed how you can create vital new sounds without resorting to the latest avant-garde movement or clever compositional gimmick. He brilliantly summed up his opposition to musical trends of the 1970s and '80s thus: "Modernism has provided an alibi for amateurism. The framework for a given experiment comes to set the agenda for the artistic expression. . . Breaking the rules becomes the greatest virtue." I quote all of this (presented in the excellent liner notes) to give listeners unfamiliar with Holten's choral music an important philosophical context for what they're hearing.
Yes, the music is fundamentally tonal, but for the most part it's not especially "easy" listening. There's a stark, bold face to most of these pieces, underlying which are thick textures, dense harmonies, and miles of unresolved dissonances. But just as suddenly a lovely, lyrical melody or warmly familiar harmonic passage reassuringly emerges, affirming the music's essential elements.
Holten is a master of contrasts and of creating a natural textual flow. In his wonderful settings of six William Blake poems he leads us from the eerie serenity of The Sick Rose to the frightening fury of The Tyger, followed by a stunningly beautiful, awe-invoking lullaby, A Cradle Song, its mesmerizing soprano solo floating above a comforting, slow-moving harmonic stream. This latter piece, which is followed by a lilting, frolicking Spring and two much craggier Blake settings--A Divine Image, and Night--certainly is among the most profoundly gorgeous 20th-century choral works and is the most likely of the six Blake works to find easy audience approval.
There's more, much more, including First Snow and Hermit Peak, written in 1996 for a Canadian choir and based on poems that reflect the harsh realities of winter and landscape in northern Alberta. Holten loves to incorporate musical themes from other times and places in his works--"Sumer is icumen in" delightfully (and appropriately) appears in Spring (one of the Blake poems) joined by the tune from the carol "Joseph lieber, Joseph mein"; In nomine uses the famous Tavener melody--and he also manages to find subjects that are very atmospheric and rich in imagery. Rain and Rush and Rosebush, a 12-minute piece for 12 voices (including four soloists), is based on a tale by Hans Christian Andersen. You'll be amazed not only by the colors and moods Holten describes in his score, but also by the phenomenal soprano solo by Catherine Bott (you have to hear it to appreciate what I'm talking about).
In terms of performance, the BBC Singers are expectedly flawless in their technical mastery of these difficult works, and whether the score calls for huge dynamic outbursts, sustained periods of discord and unrest, or moments of tender lyricism--A Cradle Song, for example--the ensemble proves assured and solidly focused. Micaela Haslam's solo in A Cradle Song is one of the disc's highlights. The same enthusiasm can't be lavished on the sound, however, which is low-level and places the chorus just slightly too distant to give us the detail and impact afforded by the best seat in the house. Nevertheless, you'll be missing something really special if you love choral music and you don't find a way to hear this exceptional disc. [3/5/2004]
--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com