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Gregory ROSE (b.1948)
Danse macabre (2011) [60:09]
Rainer Vilu (baritone) – Death; Henry Tiisma (bass) – The Preacher; Raul Mikson (tenor) – The Pope; Olari Viikholm (bass) – The Emperor; Kristine Muldma (soprano) – The Empress; Tiit Kogerman (tenor) – The Cardinal; Andreas Väljamäe (bass) – The King
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble/Gregory Rose
rec. October 2014, Niguliste kirik, Tallinn
Texts and translations included
TOCCATA TOCC0284 [60:09]

Gregory Rose’s Danse macabre is a music-theatre piece that includes arias, choruses and dances and is cast for seven singers, chorus and small instrumental forces. Composed in 2011 it was inspired by a sixteenth-century painting by Bernt Notke (b.c1435), 100-feet long, in the Niguliste Kirik – St Nicholas Church – in the Estonian capital, Tallinn. The texts are in mediaeval German and sit below the vast panels and it is these that Rose has set. The work received its first performance in the church in October 2011 and this recording was made in the same location three years later.

In the painting, Death invites 24 people to join his Dance of Death or Totentanz. Photographic reproduction of the work – the original of which has some missing panels – is in black and white and is sufficiently detailed to enable one to observe the Devil’s taunting of the characters, as well as seeing how the texts, which were originally in French but circulated across Europe having been multiply translated, correspond to the scene above. One can’t read the texts, as the reproduction is inevitably small considering the vast size of the painting, but the reproduction fits across two sides of the booklet occupying somewhat less than half of the vertical size of the paper.

The work is constructed in a sequence of 28 separate, taut, scenes. There are seven dances and a series of songs for the characters, ‘Death Songs’ for Death and choruses with movements from the Requiem dispersed throughout the Danse macabre. Rose infuses his dances with a strong sense of the processional, and with this comes a certain acrid quality reinforced by the apt instrumentation employed – percussion and brass, principally. In some, the employment of Death’s bagpipes imparts an eerie sound, depending on how pressingly Rose foregrounds them: in the fifth dance, for example, which comes between Death’s invitation to dance given to the Countess and to the Cardinal, the overriding quality is of a triumphant leering where the bagpipes sound like caterwauling soprano saxophones. The dances provide one of the recurrent elements of this work and are one of its most resonant features.

As a listening experience one is inevitably deprived of the full impression of the visual analogue of the painting, one that those in the church could enjoy during performances there. But even in the music-theatre of one’s mind, Rose’s music exercises a gripping sense of immediacy. The solo singers faithfully enact those qualities of sardonic mockery, unease, and fear asked of them The stages of the Requiem offer varying expressive states – the Requiem aeternam is uneasy, the Absolve, Domine suitably reflective and calm, a withdrawn In Paradisum and, in the longest single movement, a Pie Jesu that offers something of an ambiguous response, encoding as it does a tolling motif that barely lessens.

The instrumentation too is revealing – string quartet and double-bass, wind, brass and percussion – particularly when an instrument offers its own commentary. I think especially of the accusatory, almost malign pleasure taken by the double-bass in its own line whilst Death berates the King or indeed the imposing tam-tam, in the scene when the Emperor realises finally his place in the scheme of things.

Evoking the timelessness of the past through contemporary means is a special gift. There is a full and detailed booklet note from the composer, texts and translations. Performances are outstanding not least from Rainer Vilu in the role of Death and there’s a very sympathetic recording. This is a piece of music-theatre that lingers long in the mind.

Jonathan Woolf



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