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Detlev GLANERT (b. 1960)
Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch (version 2016)
David Wilson-Johnson (voice)
Aga Mikolaj (soprano)
Ursula Hesse von den Steinen (mezzo)
Gerhard Siegel (tenor)
Christof Fischesser (bass)
Netherlands Radio Choir/Edward Caswell (chorus master)
Leo van Doeselaar (organ)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Markus Stenz
rec. live, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, 5 November 2016 (world premiere recording)
Reviewed as a stereo DSD128 download from NativeDSD
Pdf booklet includes sung texts in Latin, English, French and German
RCO LIVE RCO17005 SACD [83:09]

What an intriguing conceit, a requiem for an artist well known for his harrowing depiction of last things; the third panel of his triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, springs to mind. The German composer Detlev Glanert, who’s also the Concertgebouw’s composer in residence, was commissioned by the orchestra to write a piece to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Hieronymus Bosch, the Brabantian artist who died in 1515. In his booklet essay, which includes conversations with the composer, Mark van de Voort points out that Glanert is always up for a challenge, as demonstrated by two of his most celebrated operas, Joseph S (1999) and Caligula (2006).

That said, there’s mischief afoot, the liturgical setting spiced up with medieval texts devoted to the seven deadly sins; the latter are derived from the same source as the bawdy lyrics that Carl Orff used in his (in)famous cantata, Carmina Burana. This is a preliminary grilling, before the great judgement itself, in which the archangel Michael – played by the baritone David Wilson-Johnson – attempts to gauge just how tarnished the artist’s soul really is. A strange hybrid, perhaps, but the composer is clear about one thing: this is not an opera by another name, but more of an oratorio, ‘an inner spectacle, like the St Matthew Passion’. Then there’s the burning question: does this soul make it into heaven? All in good time, dear reader, all in good time.

The piece is built on a large scale, a small choir and organ to one side, the main choir, soloists and orchestra centre stage. As the helm is Markus Stenz, whose well-received recordings of Mahler and Schoenberg show he’s also not one to shirk a challenge. That said, I’ve been disappointed by his work to date, so this could be a chance for him to make amends. As for the Netherlands Radio Choir, they are a fine ensemble, and I fully expect them to shine here. I’ve also been less than complimentary about some of Polyhymnia’s recent recordings, but I’m hoping that engineers Everett Porter and Anne Taegert will pull out all the stops with this one.

Proceedings in this heavenly ante-chamber get off to a bowel-loosening start, with the archangel’s terrifying summons to Bosch’s waiting soul, the vocal quartet and main choir warning of the demons that lurk within us all. The style is Orffian, but the ostinati are not quite so blatant, the punctuating orchestral effects more refined. Indeed, the contrast between that and the Requiem aeternam, for small choir and organ, couldn’t be greater; ethereal voices rise above sustained, sometimes floor-shaking pedals, the effect both simple and affecting. Goodness, this is splendid singing, and there’s a marvellous sense of being there, of an attentive audience in thrall to the unfolding drama.

Wilson-Johnson does well to convey authority without sounding too much like a drill sergeant. Gluttony, with the characterful bass Christof Fischesser, has distinct echoes of Orff’s overfed abbot but, as before, Glanert’s colouristic touches are far subtler. That said, the Absolve Domine has real heft, the combined choirs weighty and passionate, the orchestra just as transported. Even here, one senses that the composer is being judicious, the spectacle all the more powerful for being so well controlled. As for Stenz, he’s very much in control, and the Concertgebouw – an orchestra that chooses when to play well – are clearly at their best. And I have no quarrels with the recording, which is one of the finest I’ve heard from this venue in ages.

All too often requiem settings are let down by uneven or indifferent soloists, but this well-matched quartet are firm and fearless from start to finish. (I’d love to hear them in the Verdi.) Glanert holds back in Wrath – after all, the main event is still to come – tenor Gerhard Siegel is both strong and steady at this point. One might expect a pate- and plaster-cracking Dies irae – Berlioz, Verdi and Britten come to mind – but Glanert, perhaps mindful of these mighty antecedents, seems determined to play down the potential vulgarity of these climactic moments. Indeed, good taste, agility and a telling use of vocal/orchestral resources are key to the work’s success. Also, this music defies expectations, the Dies irae longer and more varied than one might expect.

Next up is Envy, soprano Aga Mikolaj lean and lissom throughout; then it’s the turn of the full quartet, which excels in the hushed Juste judex that follows. Leo van Doeselaar’s organ solo makes for a pleasing interlude, slipping quietly into Sloth, for soprano, mezzo and orchestra. (It seems the archangel has mellowed, for now at least.) The singing here is ravishing, Hesse von den Steinen soft velvet to Mikolaj’s spun-silk. And those Mahlerian harp figures are certainly ear-pricking. Well, we’re more than halfway through, and pace/inspiration show no sign of flagging. If anything, the sense of commitment, of fierce concentration, is stronger than ever,

The soloists take a well-deserved rest in the Domine, Jesu Christe, which has real bounce and brio, while Hesse von den Steinen is satisfyingly secure in Pride. Spare the orchestration may be at times, but there’s always an underlying warmth – a harmonic richness – that will surely appeal to those for whom contemporary music is a step too far. There’s shape and momentum too, a genuine ebb and flow, which contributes to a sense of development, of ongoing interest; that should please them even more. And contrary to expectations, the Sanctus is a speedy little number, the chorus and orchestra neat and nimble throughout.

Wilson-Johnson is back in stern voice at the start of Lust, in which the male soloists – naturally – duet above a burbling orchestra base and emphatic men’s choir. Yet another example of how Glanert appears to reanimate the score, even though it really doesn’t need to be helped along. And, to my ears at least, the Agnus Dei has an Eastern cast, its rich tapestry glowing with threads of vocal gold. The subdued organ part is sensitive and beautifully balanced.

Avarice is both garish and gripping, the varied refrains of the Libera me & Peccatum [Sin] bundled and bounced about the stage. As for the finale, it defies easy description or categorisation; suffice to say, inspiration and commitment persist to the very end, these forces performing at their collective peak. The applause has been edited out, but I hope the audience brought the house down. Oh, and does the artist’s waiting soul get past God’s burly bouncer? Now that would be telling….

A garden of earthly – and heavenly - delights; superb singing, playing and sound.

Dan Morgan


Demonibus [6:15]
Requiem aeternam [6:00]
Gula (Gluttony) [3:30]
Absolve Domine [3:29]
Ira (Wrath) [2:41]
Dies irae [7:35]
Invidia (Envy) [2:40]
Juste judex [5:20]
Organ solo [3:14]
Acedia (Sloth) [4:23]
Domine, Jesu Christe [3:34]
Superbia (Pride) [3:39]
Sanctus [3:14]
Luxuria (Lust) [2:13]
Agnus Dei [7:54]
Avaritia (Avarice) [1:57]
Libera me & Peccatum [6:24]
In Paradisum [8:58]