Simeon ten Holt’s Canto Ostinato is an extraordinary piece of music. It leaves a lot of room for interpretation – the musicians decide what sections they play, and how long they spend playing each section. The sections contain repeat signs, but the musicians decide how often to repeat. As such, every performance is different and you never know exactly what to expect. The number of instruments used can also vary, though most often it’s performed by two or four pianos.

Polo de Haas and Kees Wieringa © Victor Nieuwenhuijs
Polo de Haas and Kees Wieringa
© Victor Nieuwenhuijs

Tonight’s performance was with two pianos, played by Polo de Haas and Kees Wieringa, who have recorded a renowned recording of the piece. The small hall of the Concertgebouw was sold-out, full of people excited to see them play it live. Last year, a documentary on the piece, “Over Canto”, was released in The Netherlands, containing a number of interviews with people who have been profoundly influenced by Canto, and this has only increased its popularity. This popularity is much deserved: Canto Ostinato is one of the highlights of 20th-century Dutch classical music, and perhaps even one of the highlights of minimalist music in general. It contains some exceptional melodies and its structure and rhythmic nature make it one of the most mesmerizing pieces of music I have ever heard.

From the very beginning, it was clear that de Haas and Wieringa are incredibly familiar with both the Canto and each other. Although elaborate head-nods were used to signify the move from one section to the next, their playing was as beautifully intertwined as you would want it to be. At the same time, the performance was not faultless, with both musicians missing a few notes or making little mistakes – but all the while the rhythmic intensity of the work was present in their playing. It’s the rhythm that makes the Canto Ostinato such a hypnotizing work: the melodies change but the rhythm stays the same, allowing for the listener to enter into an almost trance-like state.

The concert lasted close to two and a half hours – and I would say that this was slightly too long. After around an hour and 40 minutes the audience started to shift in their seats and move around almost constantly – more than understandable considering there hadn’t been a break, but certainly a bit bothersome. When performing a work like this I think it’s absolutely essential that people can really enter into a state of relaxation, of pure enjoyment – which the length of this performance didn't encourage.

This doesn’t mean that the Canto shouldn’t be played for such a length of time – it simply means that the setting was wrong for such a concert. If it was at a bar, at any type of place where the crowd would have been able to walk around, this length would have been less of an issue. Interestingly, de Haas and Wieringa seemed to be the least affected by the length of performance – still playing as strongly at the end as when they started. I doubt that there was anyone in the concert hall who did not leave with great admiration for the musicality and dedication of these pianists.

***11