ROSE Danse macabre  — Gregory Rose, cond; Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble — TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC 0284 (60:09)


The idea of death has long fascinated artists. For Gregory Rose, the composer and conductor on the current release, the Danse macabre or Totentanz—the dance of death which calls on everyone no matter their position in this world—proved especially attractive for a setting. Taking his inspiration from Bernt Notke’s Totentanz, a series of paintings found in St. Anthony’s Chapel in the Church of St. Nicolas in Tallinn, Estonia, the composer has constructed a multi-movement music-theatre work, made up of solo arias, choruses, and dances. Though using the French title for the name of his work, the texts set in his Danse macabre are all in Notke’s original fifteenth-century German and Latin for the Mass movements. In his own words, the work is, “organized as a series of interlocking movements containing seven ‘Death Songs,’ where Death invites the various characters to join the dance (starting with the Pope), their replies, the complete Requiem Mass sung by the chorus, and a series of seven ‘Death Dances.’ These dances range from the gentle, ironic Dance 1, through to the very slow Recessional Dance (No. 7), where Death leads the six featured characters to their inevitable end.” Using smaller forces throughout—a fourteen-piece chamber ensemble and chorus, along with seven singers—Rose comes up with some fascinating combinations of sounds and textures, creating a work of impressive stature. If I had to compare the sound of the work to another, the first one that comes to mind is Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, with perhaps a bit of Stravinsky, some Copland, and a sprinkling of Poulenc thrown into the mix. And one mustn’t forget the composer’s fondness for older music. Perhaps a bit of Pérotin or Léonin can also be heard.

Because the music is dramatic in nature, one wonders what sort of visual element could be brought into the mix in performance: Mime? Actual dance? Settings and the use of props which almost recreate Notke’s paintings scene by scene? But even without these aids, the music, as oratorio, works wonderfully to fully convey the texts: the music is at times eerie, at times ironic, in others more humorous, and sometimes even lighthearted. Perhaps my favorite moments are the creepier sounding ones, the ones filled with a quiet mystery: movements such as the Death Song 6 or the especially beautiful and hushed Absolve, Domine. But there are others: the strange Dance 4, with its scherzo-like qualities—think of an updated Saint-Saëns Danse macabre here—or the Dance 5 with its use of droning bagpipe, are equally expressive and highly entertaining.

So if one were interested in the now twenty-first century oratorio, or musico-dramatic theatre work, then one should well enjoy Rose’s efforts here. Having listened to the work numerous times over the course of a few weeks now, the music has grown on me and stayed in my memory, disturbing as it sometimes is. But in the weeks now leading up to the Christmas season, this music certainly makes one pause and think; and makes for a vivid contrast from all the jingle bells and songs about St. Nick that one is now hearing all over. So for those paintings in St. Nicolas’s church, we can only be grateful, now in numerous ways.