News & Reviews: Review

December 2019

The Times

9th December 2019

Richard Morrison

BBC SO/Bychkov review – tumultuous work certainly threw everything at Bosch.

There is still intense debate about the meaning of Hieronymus Bosch’s extraordinary depictions of Hell. Did he really believe in a Day of Judgement? Or were his grotesque paintings intended more to titillate his early 16th-century patrons, like a modern-day horrow movie?

Similar questions might be asked about Detlev Glanert’s epic Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch, which meshes the conventional requiem text with poems from the medieval Carmina Burana to depict the dead Bosch being “tried” for the seven deadly sins in turn. Does Glanert expect 21st-century audiences to relate seriously to this hellfire theology? Or is his title a knowing wink, a way of saying, “Pretend for 85 minutes you are Bosch’s contemporary and feel the terror of contemplating eternal damnation”?

A 59-year-old German with a penchant for lurid subjects (his Caligula sank without trace at English National Opera a few years ago), Glanert certainly threw everything at Bosch. On stage for this UK premiere was a vast panoply of singers, soloists and instrumentalists: the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, magnificently fired up under Semyon Bychkov. In the gallery the BBC Singers delivered a mournful modernist take on Renaissance polyphony, while an increasingly angry speaker (David Wilson-Johnson) continually summoned Bosch to face his maker. And halfway through the work an organist (the excellent Richard Pearce) let rip the sort of solo that makes Messiaen sound timid.

Much sounded recycled. The mechanistic choral declamation seemed straight out of Orff or Stravinsky; the dramatic Dies Irae invited comparison with Verdi; the macabre instrumentation evoked Ligeti; and the sudden choral shouts inevitably recalled Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Perhaps, echoing Sartre, Glanert believes that Hell is other people’s music. Yet his voice was always evident — capable of lush beauty as well as ferocious outbursts.

Preceding this tumultuous work, unaccompanied choral pieces by Bosch’s Flemish contemporaries — Crecquillon, Ockeghem and Pierre de la Rue — were performed with chaste precision by the BBC Singers under Andrew Griffiths’s direction. Their rich modal harmonies seemed light years from Bosch’s apocalyptic visions. You had to remind yourself that this was the actual musical world in which Bosch lived. The whole concert is on BBC Radio 3 tonight.