New Requiem reaches Highs in Scottish Premiere

Last Night in Edinburgh Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) gave a World Premiere concert of Karin Rehnqvist's Requiem aeternam. It was an night of new music, premieres and requiems reaching for meaning in despair.

The concert began with the Scottish Premiere of the Pastoral Symphony by Brett Dean. While Dean suggests countless works since Beethoven's own Pastoral Symphony have found inspiration from nature, Dean's own symphony focuses on the "growing sense of loss;" what will the world be like when we have destroyed nature completely. The piece was orchestrated for an nonette, with wind, percussion, percussion and percussion. There was a great deal of tonal color throughout, starting with an imperceptible murmur on the strings, but eventually the piece gets so busy it's hard to tell the direction from the noise. It flowed with peaks and valley's, but never allowed us anything to grasp, to hold, to enjoy. Olari Elts, the conductor, did an amazing job at getting the ensemble to respond to the nuances of the piece. However, in the end, we were left with a sense of despair wondering how this was about nature. If so, then perhaps the composer did a wonderful job at creating "the soulless noise that we're left with when they're all gone." The polite applause at the end was evidence of an audience that felt they somehow missed it.

Toru Takemitsu's Treeline (1988) and Requiem (1957) were next on the programme. The music is very Debussy like, with rich harmonies and haunting melodies. Treeline floats along the strings with a very modern feel. The Requiem was dark and mourning, with an excellent use of sul ponticello giving the piece an eerie element, very tonal, and yet thoroughly modern. At the end of each piece (one at the end of the first half, the second started the second half of the programme), the audience gave a long and protracted applause very much resonating with the music deftly played by the ensemble.

The highlight of the evening was the Requiem aeternum co-commissioned by the SCO and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Based on several different texts, it doesn't follow the standard liturgy, but rather creates its own to examine death. As the composer states in her notes for the piece, "No one knows what happens after death. We may believe. We may speculate. But no living human being can say." The music cries out to understand not only death, but God in relation to it. The soloists, Helena Ek and Maria Koehane are both soaring Sopranos who can reach incredible highs and yet maintain a richness in the lower registers which adds depth to the music. Rehnqvist uses these voices with masterful effect, beginning the piece with a solo voice lilting over the audience. Eventually the voice is joined by winds, which melodically build the tension as the words of the piece explores birth, the creation of life. The next movement is a duet in plainsong, calling to one another across the hills, while the strings hum threateningly underneath, giving the movement an ancient feel. The SCO chorus is first heard in the requiem aeternam at the end of the second movement. Rehnqvist uses the strings doubling the voices to give accent to the sound, particularly with the basses and the double basses rumbling in their lower register. The Kyrie eleison uses the traditional words, and starts with a bass flute with a somber mood. Eventually this changes to a sense of pleading, "Lord, have mercy" as if to say, "If you exist, then please have mercy." The fourth movement uses the same words as the first with a return to the soft solo voice, accompanied by a harp.

From here the Requiem begins its ascent into dread, grief, anger, acceptance and eventually hope. Rehnqvist has an excellent command of the voice as we hear elements of folk music in the solo voice, sometimes singing in their lower register and at other times soaring at the top of the vocalists range. The choir often had moments where parts were singing in canon pitting voices against each other a semitone apart and yet never feeling like the music was uncomfortably discordant, quite the opposite, the close chords built tension but also gave the piece a rich harmony that was truly beautiful. The Sanctus started with accented whispers, startling and effective, while the Libre me used the chorus and all its strength to create a sense of anticipation and pleading. But in the end, we are left with quiet solace, wanting more and yet knowing it's over.

Requiem aeternum is an incredible addition to the canon of existing requiems. When the piece is performed in Sweden it will be paired with Faure's Requiem which should provide a wonderful companion to the music of Rehnqvist. While both pieces are approximately thirty-five minutes in length, if anything, Rehnqvist's could be much longer. It soars, but never seems to get quite high enough or stay there long enough to really satiate our desire to hear more. It's an amazing piece of music, and perhaps, like life, it ends too soon.


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