With guidelines easing only a few days earlier, Saturday’s NTR Zaterdag Matinee in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw was, for a number of reasons, very special. With stringent restrictions on choirs in the Netherlands throughout this recent period, those of us able to be present as part of the reduced audience were greeted with two works including chorus, Karin Rehnqvist’s Silent Earth, completed in 2020, and Karol Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater. So a new threshold in performance possibilities was finally broken through, and not only was Rehnqvist present for her world premierebut composer colleague Hans Abrahamsen too, whose 2018-19 Horn Concerto received its Dutch premiere.

Netherlands Radio Choir (Groot Omroepkoor)
© Simon van Boxtel Photography

When taking my seat in a concert nowadays, I look around the hall, pausing to reflect which hurdles have been jumped, by who, to make the music possible. On this occasion, bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas and conductor Dima Slobodeniouk were absent, with stolid substitutions ably provided by Mark Stone and conductors, Gijs Leenaars and Frans-Aert Burghgraef at the helm of the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, so demonstrating the Covid wheel turns still slowly.  

Silent Earth for choir and orchestra, sketches alternately lush pastoral evocations of our planet, a formerly verdant place, characterised by languorous flute and muted jazz-inflected brass, bumping up against a more ominous underbelly of an earth abandoned, left only to prevailing winds and desolation. These shapeshifting undertones characterise an earth in the wake of destruction. In an unsettling manner Rehnqvist’s colourations switch at liminal speed, oscillating between a variety of sophisticated sonic images. Her orchestration is both unique and breathtaking. Considering he will have stepped quickly in, Leenaars demonstrated an equal precision in control and understanding of the mutable forces Rehnqvist had let loose under his baton. 

Rehnqvist’s close involvement with choirs has shaped her knowledge and distinctive grip on writing for ensemble voices. Equal acuity is shown in the positioning of these ensemble voices within, adjacent or at a distinct tangent to the texture of orchestral writing. The level of detail in articulation and colouring in the vocal writing conjured in the work blends with, or offsets exquisitely, similar subtlety of timbral shading in the orchestra. Most notable in Silent Earth, voices used almost percussively in the shaping of words, dovetail and merge intricately, counterbalancing distinctive percussion techniques. Unusual large-scale textures which reduce, roar and topple from one part of the podium to the other, Silent Earth is at points innocently joyous, desolate, majestic and towards its conclusion, haunting – like the echo of a thought, of a planet that once was.

Radio Filharmonisch Orkest
© Simon van Boxtel Photography

In striking contrast to Ambrahamsen’s Winternacht (1976-78) where singular flakes of snow can be envisioned in the soft descending fall of stark flute notes, his Horn Concerto revels in a febrile unsettling mood. With woodwinds still providing a habitual shrill frame to occasional moments of thin, sparser texture, for the majority, softly sonorous contrary and angular motion pervades. Much like Rehnqvist, a nebulous energy is present in both horn (Stefan Dohr) and orchestral parts, just out of sight, rangy and angular, far in the distance, this language is transient, just passing through – and then, is gone. 

Two strikingly contrasting works from the North, our matinée’s conclusion, glanced eastwards in the form of the impassioned and pure choral writing of Karol Szymanowski. Singers Ewa Tracz, Aigul Akhmetshina and Mark Stone, all luminous, foregrounded the Groot Omroepkoor, so Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater could be delivered straight from his heart to ours, each word landing safe in the understated direction of Leenaars. A heartfelt and pure, visceral end to this wintry orchestral and choral embrace.