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Wilfred Owen
12 Oct 2011

Britten’s War Requiem, London

‘Requiescant in pace. Amen.’

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem

Sabina Cvilak, soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor; Simon Keenlyside, bass. Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda. London Symphony Orchestra. London Symphony Chorus. Eltham College Choir Trebles. Barbican Hall, London, 9th October 2011.

Above: Wilfred Owen


The final words of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem are words of peace and hope, but recent and on-going conflicts in Rwanda, Liberia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya suggest that although almost fifty years have passed since the work was first performed, to celebrate the rebuilding and re-consecration in May 1962 of the bomb-blasted Coventry Cathedral, the sentiments of Wilfred Owen, voiced in the epigraph, have lost none of their impact or relevance: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do today is warn.”

Much of the power of the work lies in its innate contrasts. Owen’s dark, distressing war poems form a counterpoint to the consolations of the requiem mass, and the interweaving of secular and sacred, vernacular and Vulgate, is often challenging, surprising and deeply ironic. A resonant, full orchestral clamour contrasts with delicate, finely fashioned chamber sonorities; soloists and chorus intertwine and counterpoise. Brightness interrupts the darkness, and is then once more overwhelmed by horror and terror.

Conductor Gianandrea Noseda, deputising for the indisposed Sir Colin Davis, was ever alert to such contrasts. Thus, in the opening ‘Requiem aeternam’, the lustre of high trebles of Eltham College Choir – placed distantly, as Britten requested, in the gallery – thrillingly broke through the solemn, funereal tolling of the orchestral accompaniment; similarly, the gentle phrasing of the women’s voices in the choral ‘Recordare’ was abruptly and dramatically superseded by the energetic, bellicose assertions of the men’s ‘Confutatis maledictis’. Elsewhere, the very quietness was itself imbued with ominous, discomforting resonances: the whispered conclusion to the fugal ‘Quam olim Abrahae’, following the terror of the lines, ‘the old man would not so, but slew his son, – And half the seed of Europe one by one’, was spine-chilling. Throughout the London Symphony Chorus were on fine form, enunciating the text clearly and attentive to all the significance musical details.

A cast of impressive soloists had been assembled. Ian Bostridge may have more than fifty performances of the War Requiem behind him but he is clearly not about to let any element of routine enter into his interpretation. In a recent interview he asked, “Which war, whose Requiem?” and his intense engagement with this question underpinned a remarkably committed performance, one which judiciously conveyed every nuance and inflection of the text. Never afraid to use the grain and catches of the voice to highlight the bitterness and ugliness expressed by Owen, Bostridge is totally attuned to the musical and poetic expression, uniting the power of both in his delivery. He produced a disturbing vehemence in ‘What passing bells for these who die as cattle?’ but created an exquisite, poised stillness in the ‘Agnus Dei’.

Baritone Simon Keenlyside was less overtly dramatic but he provided an effective base or grounding for the more extrovert tenor. Singing with sincerity and considerable beauty of tone, Keenlyside communicated authoritatively, especially in ‘Be slowly lifted up, thou long back arm’. In their duet passages, as the men sing with ironic cheerfulness of death, or chillingly relate the story of Abraham and Isaac, both singers displayed an admirable feeling for the text. Every word pulsed with meaning and import, especially in the final extract from Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’.

The solo soprano is separated from the two male soloists, musically and textually, and here Slovenian Sabina Cvilak was spatially distanced too, placed in the choir. Singing the Latin text, ‘Liber scriptus’, which sets out day of judgement, Cvilak was perhaps a little too placid, not making full use of her undoubted rich tone, although the declamatory phrases of the ‘Sanctus’ were well-shaped and she displayed a pure tone and a well-supported pianissimo.

The players of the London Symphony Orchestra were on tremendous form, guided skilfully by Noseda who illuminated all the details of the score. Noseda’s control of the musico-dramatic form was exemplary and his galvanising of his forces in the big moments superb: thus the chilling distant fanfares which herald the outbreak of violent combat at the start of the ‘Dies Irae’ built to an explosive force. The full fury of the orchestral forces were sparingly employed and the turbulent outbursts perfectly judged, as in the frighteningly precipitous ‘Libera me’ in which the stifled percussion eventually detonated in a terrifying climax with the entry of the organ. In contrast, Noseda paced the more grave moments with controlled deliberation. The chamber ensemble which virtuosically accompanies the songs sensitively supported the intimate drama and dialogue of Owen’s verses.

In a recent essay in the Guardian newspaper, Bostridge wrote that, “The War Requiem is a masterpiece of the deepest emotional and moral depth. It is also an enormous contraption of musical ingenuity”. This was a purposeful and impressively crafted performance, one which powerfully expounded the human truths and elemental emotions exposed by Britten and by Owen; time does not lessen their importance or impact.

Claire Seymour

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