Si­mon Holt: A Ta­ble of Noises

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Film - by Ivan Hewett

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.

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