First seen in Tallinn, Estonia, in 2011, and in a sense still a work in progress, Gregory Rose’s Danse Macabre was given a biting performance at St. John’s, Waterloo, featuring soloists from Trinity Laban.
Inspired by a series of ominous memento mori (‘Remember thou art mortal’) panels completed in Lübeck and Tallinn by the 16th century medieval German master, Bernt Notke, it calls for a graphic series of visual exchanges. In the paintings, Death taunts the powerful of the land, secular and sacred – King, Cardinal, Bishop, Empress, etc. – with their inevitable demise. Their responses, in the 15th century accompanying text, vary from brazenly futile to cowering.
But the title also implies dance. Given that Trinity College is now merged with the Laban Dance Centre – and housed in a miraculous building in Deptford designed by the Tate Modern’s Swiss architects – you might expect them to employ a flock of young dancers here. But, no: here, as in Tallinn (where a planned dance element never quite solidified), we are presented instead with a rather tentative, though well-marshalled, ‘semi-staging’; albeit with a musical score that teased, intrigued and more often than not, triumphed.
Rose’s composing and conducting career began as a talented young exponent of Modernism, studying in Oxford and Vienna with two Schoenberg pupils, the Austro-Hungarian Egon Wellesz, and Austro-Czech Hanns Jelinek. Rose’s own compositions (Danse Macabre is a classic case) are now more hybrid: like many contemporaries, he has imbibed the technical, structural and colouristic consequences of the middle Twentieth Century – Xenakis, Ligeti, Henze, above all late Stravinsky – yet absorbed them into an output often – depending on the forces – surfing a ‘safer’ tonal landscape. Forthcoming Rose premieres (Avebury Stone Circles, or Red Planet) may reflect or counter this. His award-winning Missa Sancti Pauli (for St. Paul’s Cathedral) indicates how successful he has been in this fusion.
If Trinity Laban’s dancers remained in hiding (if the work returns to Tallinn the Estonian National Ballet may get involved), its young vocalists were much on display. Most outstanding for the haunting fervour of his delivery – he brings a voice of grit, and quite chilling charm – was Simon Dyer, as Death, clad in white-tinged black, his skull mask alternating between front and rear – thus always watching you, the audience, to whom the painting’s chilling message is really directed (in the Lübeck version, Rose points out, even a child is addressed by Death).
The others reveal mixed talents. The Pope’s plaint (tenor Simon Marsh) with mocking xylophone could be straight out of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex; while baritone Thomas McKenna’s Preacher, mopped up by staccato brass, notably bass trombone in this strikingly full-sounding orchestral ensemble, demonstrates a thrilling capacity for following difficult, frequently syncopated leads. Perhaps it reflected his copious jazz experience. Eminently appealing, McKenna could almost have carried the piece by himself.
In this cogent and compelling work, silence played an important role: indeed Rose’s perceptive pacing of the links, or non-links, between movements was a most arresting detail of the evening. Vital to sustaining Danse Macabre’s 28 dramatic movements was the chorus, in its explosive treatment of the Latin Requiem. This was the Exultate Singers, a magnificent Chamber Choir from Bristol, whose shivering contribution – keyed up, full-bodied, balanced, rhythmically razor-sharp – couldn’t have served the composer better.
Witness those sad choral canons that might have escaped Britten’s War Requiem; or sinuous ‘malo’ patterns like The Turn of the Screw (ironic, as Rose in his early years was predictably no Britten enthusiast), tinged with oboe, side-drum, trumpet, plus bass clarinet like a lurking hurdy-gurdy; a scorchingly resplendent Dies Irae with Owen-like passing bells; the marimba ostinati of ‘Domine Jesu’; or a searing Sanctus silencing Grace Carter’s chique then bossy Empress; and the paradoxically dark Lux Aeterna that precedes the hapless King (Ashley Mercer), most grippingly articulate of these six doomed soloists.
Add to this a haunting violin-led processional/recessional, and five quite astonishing orchestral dances, and Danse Macabre proves more than a musical Mystery Play. It is a major work by European standards, and surely this composer’s masterpiece. No wonder Arvo Pärt was in the forefront of applause at the Baltic world premiere.