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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. DSD
Latin texts and English, French & German translations included
Reviewed in SACD stereo
RCO LIVE RCO17005 SACD [83:09]

I confess that I might have allowed this release to pass by had it not been for Dan Morgan’s review of it as a download. I was more than a little intrigued, though still somewhat apprehensive that I might not ‘get’ the piece. Furthermore, in reviewing it, Dan seemed to have set the bar high for descriptive phraseology. However, with my curiosity piqued, I decided to take the plunge.

Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch is a truly unusual and highly imaginative work and I ought first to say something about the background to the work and then attempt to describe its structure. Incidentally, you may be misled, as I was, by the term “version 2016”. I wondered if this implied that what is here recorded is a revision of an earlier score. However, the research I’ve been able to do suggests this is not the case. The score was jointly commissioned by jheronimus Bosch 500 and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of the great Dutch painter, Hieronymus Bosch (c1450-1516). The first performance took place on 4 November 2016, appropriately in Sint Janskathedraal in 's-Hertogenbosch, the city in Brabant where Bosch was born and where he spent most of his life. The present performance was given in the Concertgebouw the day following the premiere.

The work is divided into 18 sections which play continuously. It’s scored for very large forces comprising SATB soloists and choir, a Speaker, a small distant choir (the Fernchor), organ and a substantial orchestra. Glanert sets the familiar Latin text of the Requiem Mass but interpolates passages which treat of the Seven Deadly Sins – Gluttony, Wrath, Envy, Sloth, Pride, Lust and Avarice. The texts for these passages, and also for a kind of prelude, ‘Of Demons’, come from the Carmina Burana and these texts are also sung in Latin. Structurally, therefore, Glanert’s work has a degree of kinship to Britten’s War Requiem where poems by Wilfred Owen are inserted into the text of the Mass for the Dead.

The work is entitled Requiem but it’s about rather more than that; it also concerns Bosch’s Judgement after death – or perhaps I should say his “pre-Judgement”. As the composer explains in the booklet, “My Requiem takes place several seconds after Bosch’s decease. His soul is condemned to go on its way to Purgatory. Prior to the great judgement, a hearing is held. The key question is whether our Bosch will go to paradise or be destined for hell.” Thus, as annotator Mark van de Voort puts it, “We hear the archangel Michael scouring all seven deadly sins in search of the slightest blot on Bosch’s escutcheon.”

The work opens with the stentorian tones of archangel Michael (David Wilson-Johnson) calling out Bosch’s name. Hearing this dread summons you can readily imagine Bosch trying to make himself insignificantly small. (“Who? Me?”) The section that follows, for soloists, chorus and orchestra, is an invocation of Demons from Carmina Burana. The ostinato rhythms may put you in mind of Orff’s ‘In taberna’ but this is something much more frightening and riveting than Orff’s playful romp. Glanert here sets a very busy text to busy music and it’s not easy to follow the words – perhaps that’s deliberate. Bosch’s pre-judgement is off to an explosive start. The Fernchor comes to the rescue, singing the ‘Requiem aeternam’ to consonant, hushed music. This is an awe-struck prayer for Rest and the main choir sings the ‘Kyrie’ in a similar vein. So discreet is the organ that the singers might as well be unaccompanied – I suspect the organ part is no more than a pragmatic aid to maintenance of pitch.

‘Gluttony’ is a bass solo and you might catch a whiff of Orff’s ‘Ego sum abbas’ but if you do you’ll soon discover that this is Orff on steroids – and far more interesting. Glanert’s orchestration is deliberately graphic – the muted brass is especially noteworthy. ‘Absolve Domine’, in which all the forces except the Speaker join together, is a fervent plea for forgiveness and absolution. (This must be the voice of Bosch’s soul,) After a strongly projected tenor solo, describing ‘Wrath’ we get to the ‘Dies irae’. Given that up to this point so much of Glanert’s piece has been vivid, colourful and dramatic you might be expecting a no-holds-barred setting of the Sequence: you’d be right. This is every bit as dramatic as Verdi’s celebrated setting. Here is tumultuous music for soloists, chorus and orchestra’; it’s music that’s red in tooth and claw. After such a piling of Pelion on Ossa it’s both a relief and a masterstroke of contrast on Glanert’s part when the last two stanzas in this section – the ‘Recordare’ - are sung in a very subdued fashion by the Fernchor.
At this point the Sequence is interrupted. Archangel Michael has remembered ‘Envy’: can he lay that sin at Bosch’s door? He gives it his best shot, whispering Bosch’s name as a prelude to an insinuating, insidious episode for solo soprano and orchestra. Then the ‘Dies irae’ resumes at ‘Juste judex ultionis’. Once again, Glanert’s way with the text of this great Sequence is pretty overwhelming; choir and orchestra are often at full tilt and there are also important contributions by the soloists. The Sequence ends quietly: is this a case of all passion spent?

There follows a short movement for solo organ. It occurs to me that this could be a very practical device to give all the other performers a well-earned respite in the middle of such a substantial continuous work. If so, I applaud Glanert’s pragmatism. I also applaud the fact that the organ solo does not in any way lessen the tension. The instrument is thrillingly exploited at all dynamic levels.

Suitably refreshed, the two female soloists depict ‘Sloth’. The mezzo begins and the lustrous tones of Ursula Hesse von den Steinen and the rich string textures that accompany her make Sloth a most alluring proposition. Eventually, the voice of soprano Aga Mikolaj and additional instrumental colours are added to the mix and the music becomes the aural equivalent of a warm bath. The Offertorium (‘Domine Jesu Christe’) is sung by the choirs and here the music is characterised by punchy rhythms and a wide dynamic range. ‘Pride’ is an opportunity for the mezzo soloist and, boy, does Ursula Hesse von den Steinen take the opportunity. Her singing is commanding – she displays Verdian presence. This is an arresting passage in the performance. After the choirs have sung the ‘Sanctus/Benedictus’ I suppose it was inevitable that male voices – soloists and chorus – should depict ‘Lust’.

The movement that follows conflates the ‘Agnus Dei’, ’Lux aeternam’ and ‘Pie Jesu’. This movement is beautifully scored and, by comparison with much of the preceding, necessarily graphic music, it’s lyrical. Glanert’s writing here is gorgeous and the performance is suitably expressive; the two female soloists are outstanding. ‘Avarice’ is the last card that archangel Michael has to play and all the forces are deployed to depict this deadly sin. The penultimate movement is ‘Libera me’ and ‘Sin’, bringing both textural strands of the libretto together. The music that we hear in the passages concerning Sin is worldly in the extreme and dramatic.

At the start of the final movement the archangel Michael has some different words to deliver; he recites verses from the Book of Revelation against a spooky, very hushed orchestral background. Then Michael calls out Bosch’s name three times, the calls punctuated by shattering organ chords. And after that…….

I deliberately didn’t read again Dan Morgan’s review so that I could approach this recording independently but I do remember one detail, namely that Dan declined to give away the ending: what is to be the fate of Hieronymus Bosch? It would be quite wrong for me to disrespect Dan’s confidence so I, too, will resist the temptation to reveal how Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch finishes. What I will say, though, is that in this closing episode Detlev Glanert does not short change his listeners.

I haven’t even begun to describe satisfactorily this extraordinary work. In any case, you need to experience it for yourself and form your own judgement. It seems to me that Detlev Glanert here reveals himself to have a strong and vivid a musical imagination which can stand comparison with the equally strong and vivid painterly imagination of Hieronymus Bosch.

The performance itself is a triumph. All four solo singers are superb in what are evidently highly demanding roles. The Netherlands Radio Choir is simply magnificent: it’s obvious that Edward Caswell has prepared them assiduously for this undertaking. David Wilson-Johnson’s contributions are not as extensive as those of the other soloists but he makes the Speaker’s role a key one, not least through the highly imaginative ways in which he voices his various summons to Bosch. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra plays splendidly, demonstrating great rhythmic acuity and awesome power where necessary. With his great experience in conducting both contemporary music and also pieces for large forces Markus Stenz was the ideal choice for this assignment. He controls everything unerringly and brings out all the drama and colour in Glanert’s score.

With such large and complex forces involved it can’t have been an easy task to record this vast score but producer/engineer Everett Porter has done a magnificent job. There’s great clarity in the sound and the often-apocalyptic loud passages make a terrific impact. The very wide dynamic ranger is expertly conveyed. In short, the SACD sound is stunning.

RCO Live has not stinted on the documentation. The booklet, which is in English, French and German, contains the full libretto, very clearly laid out, and a very thorough note by Mark van de Voort, which quotes liberally from comments by the composer. You might wish to supplement those notes by reading more comments about the piece by Detlev Glanert here.

Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch is a compelling and fascinating score. It’s great news that it has been preserved on disc in a performance that is surely definitive,

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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