9th December 2019
Detlev Glanert’s Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch is a huge and entertaining experience. The composer’s piece was the centrepiece of a Total Immersion weekend at London’s Barbican.
A composer wanting to write a Requiem has a tough act to follow. Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi and others have already been there, though Britten’s War Requiem shows a way forward in reinterpreting the old text with a parallel, modern narrative. Perhaps Detlev Glanert had that in mind when he set about his Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch.
Over the weekend Glanert was the subject of “Total Immersion”, one of the BBC’s focus days on a single composer. Talks and chamber music led to an impressive performance of the Requiem, written in 2016 for the 500th anniversary of the Dutch artist’s death and, in every sense, the big event here. There is something of the showman about Glanert. Now approaching 60, he stands as one of the most prominent German composers of his generation, and his massive, exuberant Requiem, which goes at it hammer-and-tongs, is a clear descendant of the attention-seeking grandeur and glamour of Wagner and Strauss, with barely a nod to the elitism of Schoenberg and his followers.
With an abrupt call to attention, Bosch is found at the gates of heaven, ready to be judged for his sins. Just as Britten interleaved the Latin text of the Requiem with first world war poetry to make his point, so Glanert draws on the medieval poems of the Carmina Burana. It is as if the sanctity of a cathedral is being invaded by rumbustious monks, bawdy, irreverent, satirical.
Glanert is in his element bringing the seven deadly sins to life, though some are more striking than others (“Sloth” is deliciously seductive, whereas “Lust” seems a rather uninviting affair). What is more surprising is the heady sweetness of emotion that he draws from the Latin text, where so many composers have trodden before. Kitsch is just held at bay.
It all makes for a huge and entertaining live experience. At the Barbican the performers enveloped the audience, the four soloists — Aga Mikolaj, Christa Mayer, Norbert Ernst and Albert Pesendorfer — on stage with the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra under Semyon Bychkov. Behind and above, speaker David Wilson-Johnson summoned Bosch to his last judgment and the BBC Singers, who had earlier sung Renaissance choral music, responded with rapt beauty, like angels beckoning from on high.