Like the work of it’s dedicatee, Detlev Glanert's Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch spans the mortal and the immortal, the demonic and the angelic, the putrid and the sublime. It is one of the events commemorating the 500th anniversary of the painter's death, and premiered one day before this Amsterdam performance, at St John's Cathedral in 's-Hertogenbosch, Bosch’s birthplace. It was an extraordinary performance, and not just because of the extraordinary musicianship of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, who co-commissioned the event, and the phenomenal Netherlands Radio Choir.

Detlev Glanert © Bettina Stöß
Detlev Glanert
© Bettina Stöß

It all started with demons. When selecting his texts, Glanert was inspired by Boschian devils of all gradations, from mischievous imps to merciless torturers. In the Middle Ages devils were very real, and constantly out to get your immortal soul. Adopting this medieval view of the universe, Glanert framed his Requiem as a divine trial. At the end of his life, Bosch is spiritually examined by the archangel Michael, who uses the seven deadly sins as a checklist. In a masterly stroke that gives the work both meaty content and a robust structure, the composer alternates sections of the Catholic mass for the dead with poems in secular Latin from the medieval collection Carmina Burana. The texts describing the deadly sins were introduced by an accusatory Speaker, baritone David Wilson-Johnson, intoning the name of the relevant devil specialising in that particular sin – Lucifer for pride, for example, or Leviathan for envy.

The work opens with a section called De Demonibus (On Devils), in which soloists and choir both invoke and exorcise the legions of hell in sung speech. Another apt decision, since Bosch was a lay brother of a religious confraternity, and, like some of its members, might have held the title, if not the mandate, of "exorcist”. Repetitive short figures in the orchestra, liberal use of that fiendish technique, the pizzicato, and crashing chords immediately plunged us into a world of cumulative vice and looming damnation. Then, like a soft halo, the small “Fernchor”, a “distant” choir positioned on the balcony, floated a subdued Requiem aeternam in four-part harmony. The main choir picked up this doubtful prayer, and the combined choral forces ended on a dissonant chord. Next, the first deadly sin, gluttony, reared its insatiable head as the bass solo sang the pleasures of binging on food and drink in Gula. The drooling woodwinds and flatulent horns in the accompaniment were just one example of Glanert’s richly descriptive writing. The supplicant ensemble in the deeply polyphonous Absolve Domine then gave way to the tenor’s convulsive Ira (Wrath).

Markus Stenz © Molina Visuals
Markus Stenz
© Molina Visuals
And so it went on. One moment the choir transported us close to heaven, the next we were strung over the abyss, hounded by a swarm of buzzing strings and pounded by a deafening percussion arsenal. On earth the defendant seemed helpless against the sin-peddling devils, niggled to envy by the mocking soprano and flutes, or driven to lust by a crescendo of male voices. In the end he is granted salvation. The gates of heaven swing open for him, eternal light heralded by silky flute and violin solos and the shimmering double chorus of In Paradisum. Glanert delivers big in the Requiem’s terrifying moments. The Dies irae was a boiling pit of confusion, with threatening trumpets, frenzied drums and a desperate sforzando on Salve me (save me) from the choir. The song texts suitably matched the sins, except the one for Acedia (Sloth). The poem in praise of the restorative nature of sleep and dreams has little to do with torpor, but it inspired the composer to write one of the most beautiful excerpts, a sensuous duet for soprano and alto, with opiate harp arpeggios. The two worlds, earthly and divine, come together in the Libera me, which Glanert spliced with a text he titled Peccatum (Sin), set as a hiccupping, lurching demonic dance.

This darkly colourful apocalypse was splendidly realised by the choir and orchestra under the unflagging Markus Stenz. He spun diaphanous choral textures and brought the climaxes to boil with infernal alchemy. There were outstanding instrumental solos, among others by organist Leo van Doeselaar and Miriam Pastor Burgos on the cor anglais. The vocal soloists were up to the task or better. Tenor Gerhard Siegel ran a little out of steam at the end, but his singing was muscly and powerful, if a little achromatic. Basses with more weight and volume than Christof Fischesser are usually associated with works of this magnitude, but his lyricism was highly satisfying. The women prevailed. Mezzo-soprano Ursula Hesse von der Steinen glittered with sinister elegance in her Superbia (Pride) solo. Aga Mikolaj’s lustrous soprano wound, glided and vaulted sinuously through the treacherous music, with marvellous results. Caustic in the choppy phrases, shining and soaring into the lyrical heights, she captured every tint and contour of this magnificent new oratorio.