Simon Holt: A Table of Noises
Hallé Orchestra cond. Nicholas Collon NMC
Not many composers would conceive the idea of writing a concerto portraying an eccentric taxidermist greatuncle, plus the great-uncle’s dog, “who would fall asleep standing up, staring into the fire”, and the greatuncle’s neighbour Skennin’ Mary, who had a glass eye “that spun when she became angry”.
But Simon Holt, a British composer now nudging 60, has always gone his own way. He doesn’t embrace fashionable causes to win brownie points, he doesn’t take refuge in clever systems like some living composers, or cosy up to the listener with quasi-romantic harmonies. What he aims for is something maximally vivid and aloof. “I have a feeling that the simpler and more direct something is, the more mysterious it is,” says Holt.
His music embodies that mystery, sometimes edging towards nocturnal unease, sometimes (as in this concerto) towards black comedy. He’s one of the very few composers alive whose sound – furiously active and glacially calm – is recognisable within seconds.
This concerto, written for percussionist Colin Currie, is titled A Table of
Noises, a reference to the taxidermist’s table of his great-uncle. Currie plays with forensic exactitude and mercurial brilliance, as does the Hallé Orchestra under Nicholas Collon. Alongside it is a brief, explosive piece titled St Vitus in the Kettle, inspired by a medieval saint who was roasted in molten lead. These are remarkable pieces by any standard, but the real masterpiece on this disc is the third, Witness to a Snow Miracle. It is for my money the greatest violin concerto of the past 30 years, and it receives a blazing performance from Chloë Hanslip and the Hallé.
The piece was inspired by St Eulalia, burnt alive on hot coals for refusing to worship Roman gods (Holt has a fondness for obscure saints’ lives). A blanket of snow miraculously fell on her ashes, “at which point she was declared a saint”. Torment, unimaginable heat, cold and radiant mystery come together in this strange tale, qualities caught in the ecstatic glitter and turbid darkness of the music. There are none of the conventional musical markers of compassion here; no laments, no funeral trudge. It’s as vivid as those medieval paintings that show St Lawrence being roasted on a gridiron. And yet in its unsentimental way, the music develops a power to move. It is the final mystery in a CD that is full of them.