So passes the glory of the world
Roderic Dunnett hears a work inspired by a grim image of Death, the great leveller

While concentrating on music for the liturgy and anthems for services, the annual London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, which has taken up the torch from Michael Nicholas – high-achieving (formerly triennial) celebrations in Norwich Cathedral, has matched him by finding a place for larger works of musical importance.

St John’s, Waterloo – its six-pillared Greek-style Wellington-era frontage by Francis Octavius Bedford faces Waterloo Station and the London Imax Cinema – is now home to the successful and versatile Southbank Sinfonia, founded by Simon Over. But it was the (London) Jupiter Orchestra who took over this space for the UK première of Gregory Rose’s new cantata or music-theatre work Danse Macabre.

The acoustic, in a light and breezy interior redesigned by Ninian Comper and enhanced by a Hans Feibusch mural, proved hugely satisfying. The Exultate Singers, an exciting, surely national-standard ensemble from Bristol, and some snappy young vocal soloists from the Trinity Laban Conservatoire (now in Greenwich and Deptford) were conducted by the composer.

Why is Danse Macabre, which received its world première in Tallinn, Estonia, in 2011, and is based on a medieval painting in the Niguliste (St Nicholas Church) off the main square there, so powerful?

It starts from the graphic, visual material that inspired Gregory Rose to compose the work in the first place. The painting – there is an even fuller variant version to be found in Lübeck in North Germany – is by Bernt Notke (c.1435-1509), a recognised Renaissance master. It has a magnetic power because it depicts the figure of Death, a hauntingly beckoning, almost comically threatening, sometimes prancing skeletal figure, addressing the rich and powerful – king, emperor, bishop, priest, etc. – and warning them that earthly pomp cannot protect them from the inevitable.

A great choral work needs a text, and Rose’s achievement is to have linked in to the work not just a large part of theMissa pro Defunctis, but a series of texts from a century earlier in which the lordly “victims” simper and cower and beg to be spared – or, in some cases, brazenly assert their authority and demand their rights. Some of these were impressively sung: the King, for example (Ashley Mercer); or the forcefully sung Emperor (Casey-Joe Rumens), soaring over the orchestra. Best of all, the skull-like Death himself (Simon Dyer), a singer of ability and characterising power.

This score is riddled with fine, even electrifying touches, and telling colourings, such as sensational use of woodwind or of percussion (including some notable teasings-out of marimba), much of which Rose uses to sustain the hefty contributions from the chorus. The double-bass solo after the King’s demise is as haunting as the viola da gamba in Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and reminds us that part of the composer’s skill is to have turned all these hapless victims’ grisly ends into a kind of sequenced “Passion”.

To address something as weighty as the complete requiem text might seem quite enough; to intersperse it with a complete psychological drama, or at least a series of quite distinct tableaux (the bittiness of the text might seem to some a drawback; to me the tableau approach is part of the work’s great success), so that the dramas work in a kind of emotional counterpoint, strikes me as astonishingly forceful and original.

There was too much worth praising in this brave, richly detailed new work with its sinister undercurrents. But three things seem certain.

The performances, in every department were nigh-on first-rate. The work merits – would respond well to – a full-blooded staging, with a director and designer (such costumes as there were here were perfectly good), and above all, dance, to make it really a “Danse Macabre”. But, third, these paintings, Notke’s “double” German-Estonian masterly panels, are as haunting as the most sinister Grünewald or Dürer. The quality and challenge of these medieval images is matched, time and again, in this awesome new music-theatre piece. On these grounds alone, and for the depth to which it is rooted in our culture, Danse Macabre should be taken up by serious companies at home and across Europe alike.