News & Reviews: Review

December 2019

The Guardian

8th December 2019

Andrew Clements

The painter is called out for his misdeeds in Detlev Glanert’s apocalyptic, sometimes awesome requiem, beautifully performed under Semyon Bychkov.

Between 2011 and 2017, the German opera composer Detlev Glanert was in residence with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Among the music he wrote for the orchestra during that time was a monumental choral work for the celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary, in 2016, of the death of Hieronymus Bosch – first performed in the artist’s home city of Den Bosch in November of that year. The British premiere of Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch, with Semyon Bychkov conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and its chorus, was the spectacular climax of a Total Immersion day devoted to Glanert’s music.

The Latin mass for the dead provides the framework of the tribute, but this is much more than a straightforward requiem. Glanert interleaved the sections of the mass with texts from Carmina Burana, the anthology of medieval poems. These deal with each of the seven deadly sins in turn, beginning with gluttony and ending with avarice. Before the last judgment, it seems, Bosch is being summoned by a speaker to account for all the sins he depicted so gleefully in his paintings.

Much of the choral writing is suitably apocalyptic, the orchestration massively detailed and the depiction of the sins mostly left to the soloists, while a chamber choir at the back of the hall supply most of the reflective moments. But though there are some majestically awesome passages, this dramatic oratorio is not quite as theatrically vivid as it could be. The Carmina Burana texts may be scurrilous but are never allowed to undermine the requiem as much as they might. And though solo instruments emerge occasionally from the roiling textures – a comforting cor anglais, a menacing tuba – there are not enough of such moments to dispel a sense of unvaried density through long passages.

The performance under Bychkov couldn’t be faulted. Aga Mikolaj, Christa Mayer, Norbert Ernst and Albert Albert Pesendorfer were the four soloists, and David Wilson-Johnson the stentorian speaker, summoning Bosch to account for himself from the back of the hall, while the BBC Singers (who prefaced the requiem with a beautifully delivered group of sacred and profane Flemish settings from Bosch’s time) provided the chamber choir.