Amsterdam’s Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ is a venue known for its adventurous programs and patronage of contemporary music. Tonight’s concert was had the theme “Rust z8”, or “Rest in Peace” (literally “Rest softly”). The evening boasted two premieres: a Dutch premiere of James MacMillan’s Nunc dimittis and the world premiere of Alexander Raskatov’s Alphabet of Death, with the composer present. Also on the program was Avet Terterian’s Symphony No.6.

© Marco Borggreve
© Marco Borggreve

MacMillan’s Nunc dimittis is a beautiful and powerful work for chorus and orchestra. It contains the obvious traces of Gregorian chant but as with many MacMillan pieces, it is much more grand and excitingly rhythmical. The Groot Omroepkoor, arguably the best choir in The Netherlands, sung at their best, with the final “Amen” ringing out as a truly glorious moment.

I was lucky enough to see Raskatov’s amazing opera A Dog’s Heart last summer and so I had very high expectations of his new work Alphabet of Death. My expectations were more than met, it is an incredible work. A song cycle set to poems by the Russian Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, Alphabet of Death’s music is often as absurd as the text is, but this works extremely well. The orchestra made sounds I’ve never heard any orchestra make before; among other things the strings of the harpsichord hit on with and the cellists were rather passionately attacking their instruments. None of this seemed to be superfluous though, every single note made sense and sounded necessary. The complexity of Raskatov’s music never becomes confusing or overdone, because there is also structure, repetition and beautiful rhythms and melodies. Bass soloist Nikolay Didenko was more than up to the challenge of the vocals, his voice was powerful yet full of nuance, and there was an obvious understanding of the text. Even though the text was in Russian, as a listener you could feel and understand what Didenko sung about, and similarly the orchestration added many elements to this understanding. Didenko and the Radio Kamer Filharmonie were led by Brad Lubman’s prodigious skill into a more than excellent performance. Highlight was the seventh and last song, starting with the words “I died and burst out laughing”, a sentence that aptly describes the entire Alphabet of Death. I certainly hope that this piece, and more of Raskatov's works, will become a regular feature in classical music programs.

Somewhat more difficult to digest was Avet Terterian’s Symphony No.6. It was written in 1981 and scored for chamber orchestra, chamber choir and nine phonograms. Starting off sounding like an Arvo Pärt piece,it soon morphed into something much more complex and multi-layered. The sound samples sometimes seemed unnecessary, the choir that was on stage could have sung the Gregorian chanting that was on tape just as effectively. Indeed, once the choir was finally allowed to sing themselves they almost seemed relieved. But once they did start singing the added value of the sound samples became more obvious, the mixture of different textures in sound created an almost trance-like feeling, which was certainly helped by the sober instrumentation. Although not as beautiful as the MacMillan and Raskatov pieces, one cannot help but feel affected by this Symphony No.6, it has a certain mysticism about it that lingers.