The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
A Time for Everything
Rain and Rush and Rosebush
Recorded February 2002 in Temple Church, London
Reviewed by: Michael Allen
Reviewed: March 2004
CD No: DACAPO 8.224214
Just occasionally, very occasionally, one comes across music that makes one ask the question: Where has this composer been all my life? In the case of Bo Holten it is a question relatively easy to answer since he is already well known in England as a choral conductor, particularly of the BBC Singers.
As a composer it is probably fair to say that Holten (born in 1948 in Denmark) does not write music that would frighten the horses. Indeed in the booklet note, it is made perfectly clear that ’new music’, or what we perhaps understand by the term, is not high on the list of Holten’s loves – he cites Ligeti as one of the few living composers he has any time for. So if you are expecting to be shocked, subjected to jagged vocal lines and various sorts of shrieking – think again. However, if you love music that is gratefully written for the voice, harmonically rich, and accessible without being derivative – then this CD should have a big appeal.
The major work here, all were composed in the 1990s, is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a six-movement work lasting almost half an hour for 12-part choir. Holten says that he has long had a high regard for William Blake’s poetry and the affinity certainly shows in these striking settings. Holten is not afraid to set Blake’s most popular poems from the “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”. We have a blazing and intense version of “The Tyger” which literally burns bright, and a dirge-like “The Sick Rose” that is very different to Britten’s setting. Most moving of all is “A Cradle Song” that incorporates a beautifully sung soprano solo from Micaela Haslam. Though in separate movements, the work has a satisfying logic and feeling of development.
The other, shorter works are all impressive – any reasonable amateur choircould do much worse than seek them out. Rain and Rush and Rosebush sets a text by Hans Christian Andersen that was originally written for Holten’s own vocal group and incorporates an, at times, stratospheric soprano solo, staggeringly well-sung by Catherine Bott. The qualification “at times” is significant – Holten, unlike a good few composers of our time, understands that writing constantly above the stave for a soprano can be wearing in the extreme; as a result, when it does happen in this piece, it is strikingly effective.
First Snow and A Time for Everything both show Holten’s love of creating textures that I suspect sound more complex than they are to sing – the lines are clear, beautifully sounded, the words being clear and set with imagination and care.
The final work is perhaps the most complex. In nomine was written for the BBC Singers to celebrate its 75th-birthday. Inspired, along with a great many other composers, by the In nomine section of John Taverner’s mass Gloria tibi Trinitas, written around 1530, Holten has four solo singers singing the main theme over and over again, whilst the other 20 voices sing the theme in a bewildering collection of canons, tempos and keys.
As might be expected, the BBC Singers are on fine form for their guest conductor, the composer himself. The recording is warm and spacious, and I can do nothing but give this CD of wonderful music the most enthusiastic recommendation. The booklet notes describe Bo Holten as “…the man with many hats…” – let’s hope that he wears his composing hat on a much more regular basis.