News & Reviews: Review

December 2019

Opera Today

8th December 2019

Mark Bridle

Detlev Glanert: Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch (UK premiere)

It is perhaps not surprising that the Hamburg-born composer Detlev Glanert should count Hans Werner Henze as one of the formative influences on his work – he did, after all, study with him between 1984 to 1988. There is, however, a sophistication to Glanert’s style which whilst embracing modernism looks back to the expressionism of Ravel, something which was amply applied to long stretches of his Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch. Echoes of Verdi were perhaps unavoidable, the quotes from Wagner’s Tristan less so, but it was entirely unsurprising from a composer who knows how to write opera.

An analogy with Henze is not entirely misplaced. Henze’s 1968 Das Floß der Medusa – a hybrid of oratorio and Requiem – takes as its point of reference the painting by Géricault. Glanert, however, is perhaps less drawn to a specific painting by Bosch, rather it is the profundity of the inspiration which this artist left on the composer which is more significant. But when one listens to Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch, it is the quartet of panels fromVisions of the Hereafter and, specifically, The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things which strike to the very central tenet of good and evil, light and darkness, judgment and purgatory which seem to have been most influential. Where Glanert deviates from Henze is in how a composer can use art in music. For Henze, Das Floß der Medusa is principally about aligning art to his politics; for Glanert, it is about conferring a Mass for the Dead on the artist himself.

Henze and Glanert do share something else in their Requiems, which is the texts they use to “fill out” their respective works. For Henze this is Dante’s Divina Comedia; for Glanert it is the medieval Carmina Burana (minus the Orff settings, as it happens). And it is the juxtaposition of the traditional Latin Mass, the interlacing of this sacred text between the ‘Songs of Benediktbeuern’ which gives Glanert’s Requiem such unusual tapestry and focus.

In one sense, Detlev Glanert, by choosing a Requiem celebrating Bosch, has given himself a formidable task. This is an artist whose mind was fabulously rich. You look at the wood on which Bosch painted and it is something which seems to have eyes and ears; centuries before Surrealism, Bosch’s fractured vision could render something like light as completely apocalyptic. His depictions of hell were opaque horrors of torment, that very darkness like a black lava of painted grease. Skies billow smoke; there is a monstrous, broken-limbed hopelessness to those marching into purgatory. Demons and sinners are sometimes confusingly yoked together; the sheer lack of morality in some of his paintings just reiterates the universality of despair. As Glanert has said, what Bosch gives us is a medieval viewpoint where “humankind was of little value”.

Not all of this is necessarily apparent in Glanert’s scoring of the work. The writing for the sins themselves can often seem highly imaginative, even a little wry. ‘Gluttony’ (given to the solo bass) is managed by making the orchestra sound plump, and already you can detect Glanert’s debt to Ravel – though as an orchestrator in Mussorgsky. ‘Wrath’ (tenor), is a turbulent firestorm, ‘Envy’ (soprano) charms its way entirely towards temptation. ‘Sloth’ (soprano and mezzo) is unambiguously rapturous while only obliquely reminding us of the sin, and ‘Pride’ (mezzo) has a veneer of vanity albeit of questionable wrongfulness. ‘Lust’ (tenor and bass) – supplemented by the male chorus – reverts to the influence of Ravel in its rhythms, and ‘Avarice’ (for full quartet) suggests the universality of a sin to which we are all predisposed. Each sin is called upon by the Speaker, the archangel Michael, declaiming at the top of his voice ‘Hieronymus! Hieronymus Bosch!’ (each followed by the name of the demon appropriate to the sin).

Intertwined between these sections of the ‘sins’ is the Latin Mass itself. The sheer scale – and the subject – of this Requiem in part draws comparisons with Verdi’s Requiem rather than any other. There is nothing essentially small, insular or even predominantly religious about this work – rather, it covets a more secular idiom, something perhaps closer to the private Lutheran religion of the composer himself. But, if there are comparisons with Verdi they do exist – as they do with Mahler as well. As in Verdi, Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch opens in tranquillity and moves towards the implacability of terror, though both composers treat this dissemination of orchestral power in the music quite differently. Verdi’s ‘Dies Irae’ is a towering structure, for example; Glanert’s is not, though its immensity is probably nearer to some of the final movement of Mahler’s Sixth. Glanert’s ‘Libera me’ doesn’t hollow out the feeling we are on the brink of the abyss, that the music is tremulous with dread – as if shattering chords from the organ don’t project the terror even more.

What is unquestionably very fine in this work is the writing for voices – especially for the four soloists. Common to both Glanert’s Requiem and Henze’s Das Floß der Medusa, is a spatial arrangement of the setting that places choirs at different focal points. With Glanert, we have a larger chorus on stage with the orchestra and a smaller one beside the organ (from where I was sat this was behind me). Throughout the work, these choirs merge as if they are echoing one another. Although the soloists largely sing solo, there are both duets and a quartet.

The performance was exceptional. Although Glanert has not written an operatic Requiem, it’s entirely clear this composer’s long history of composing opera has given him the versatility to balance voices against an orchestra exceptionally well. Even from my slightly too-far to the right seat, the detail from the soloists was ravishing, and it is in the ‘Deadly Sins’ where the writing is most full-blooded and coruscating. Albert Pesendorfer’s bass (heard first to magnificent effect in ‘Gluttony’) was rock-solid, even when Glanert imposed some quite treacherous lengthening of phrases. The richness and depth of Pesendorfer’s bass, sometimes charred around the edges with a blackness or melting into the cello desks, never wavered. Norbert Ernst’s tenor was equally flexible – and fully able to negotiate the wrathful tempo which had been set for that very sin. It might not be a huge voice, but the range of it was impressively wide. Christa Mayer’s mezzo often sounded unfathomably deep; so much so, it seemed to create fissures. It was perhaps her sheer steadiness of tone which made her singing of ‘Pride’ so trenchant, the rhythms sung with a power which was completely assured. Aga Mikolaj’s soprano ripped through the orchestra and soared beyond it – a voice whose ‘Envy’ aria might have even tempted us to the sin itself. When these four soloists sang as a quartet, one realised how supremely well matched they were – each bringing effortless control to their vocal line, an individuality of tone colour and a taste of sin which seemed uncomfortably human and all too relatable. David Wilson-Johnson’s speaker (Michael) intoned his repeated exclamations before the introduction of each sin with a terrifyingly powerful projection.

The BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, with so much to do in setting the immense drama of this work, were on wonderful form. Whether in prayer-like solemnity or dramatic confrontation these two choirs worked in a perfect state of vocal symbiosis. Semyon Bychkov secured gripping playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, though this conductor’s tendency to languish over phrases here and there sometimes felt at odds with the pacing of the work. But he secured ravishing playing from the orchestra, especially in the closing ‘Peccatum’ and ‘In Paradisum’ where the woodwind phrasing was flawlessly impressionistic.

Before Glanert’s massive Requiem, the evening had opened with songs written during Hieronymus Bosch’s lifetime. These short pieces, by Thomas Crecquillon, Pierre de la Rue and Johannes Ockeghem were perfect miniatures ably dispatched by the BBC Singers, although they shed no light on either Bosch or Glanert’s Reqiuem in the slightest. Some might argue that in the context of Bosch’s art, against the backdrop of a painter for whom Hell was very much his thing, and even something compelling, Glanert’s Reqiuem might fall short. Perhaps it does on that measure. But as a work about judgement and the journey between heaven and purgatory it almost succeeds.