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Wilfred Owen
13 Oct 2013

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem

Britten’s War Requiem is one of the defining artistic works of the twentieth century. Consummate artwork, religious ritual and prayer, ceremonial commemoration, ideological political statement, public expression of mourning, and private avowal of faith,

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Wilfred Owen


it demands performances which make a memorable, indelible mark on our consciousness and conscience. This haunting, arresting performance at the Royal Festival Hall by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, will surely be treasured and esteemed, ineradicably etched in the minds and hearts of all present.

Composed for the rededication of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, following its destruction during WWII, the score of the War Requiem is immensely demanding is numerous ways. First, huge orchestral forces are required: a large orchestra, chamber orchestra, large choir, boys’ choir, three soloists - the soprano singing with the forces of the main chorus, baritone and tenor aligned with the chamber instrumentalists. These personnel not only require consummate handling and control in performance, but also thorough, rigorous preparation. On this occasion, throughout the performance Jurowski’s commanding appreciation and manipulation of the whole and of the details and minutiae was impressively assured; the merest sign from the baton, clear and precise, was all that the performers required, and confident, communal understanding was unfailingly evident.

But, more than this, the preparation of the vast forces had clearly been exemplary. The London Philharmonic Choir sang throughout as one voice, having been impressively marshalled by Chorus Director, Neville Creed. Creed also conducted the chamber orchestra with a notable attentiveness and sensitivity, directing the instrumentalists with intelligent expressivity but always alert to their function within the larger whole. Leader Peter Schoerman and the other instrumentalists played exquisitely and affectively, intermittent soloists within the broader canvas.

Trinity Boys’ Choir performed confidently, expertly prepared by director David Swinson. One small proviso though: their opening lines in the Requiem aeternum were almost inaudible, and they were hushed and distant throughout; while this certainly suggested a remote separation from human concerns, a little more ‘presence’ might have brought greater sense of the power of their ‘innocence’.

The second challenge that Britten presents is the score’s integration of different linguistic and musical strata, the Latin Mass and the poetry of Wilfred Owen interlacing in intricate ways, supported by complex orchestral textures and dialogues. This necessitates a penetrating vision, in order to appreciation and communicate the way in which the separate strands cohere to convey a powerful singular message. It was William Plomer, Britten’s librettist for Gloriana and the Church Parables, who wrote that: ‘It is a function of creative men to perceive the relations between thoughts, or things, or forms of expression that may seem utterly different, and to be able to combine them in some new form.’ In this regard, Jurowski provided a compelling and inspiring framework, but the massed celebrants of the Mass, each of the soloists and the members of the small chamber orchestra also demonstrated an intuitive understanding of their role within the larger whole.

The London Philharmonic Chorus powerfully communicated the ritual emotions of the Mass, making Britten’s complex, challenging choral writing sound relatively straightforward. In the opening Requiem aeternum, their pianissimo ‘Kyrie eleison’ shimmered with an unearthly glow, while at the start of the subsequent Dies Irae they responded with thrilling passion to the terror and drama of the angular off-beat brass - the vigorous horn fanfares recalling the bugle calls of the Serenade and of Owen Wingrave - before subsiding to an eerie, exhausted calm: ‘Mors stupebit et natura/ Cum resurget creatura/ Judicanti responsura’ (Death and nature will be astounded/ When creation rises again/ To answer the Judge). The sopranos and altos pleaded with focused unity in the ‘Recordare’ before the male choral voices made more urgent pleas, underpinned by the pressing rhythms of the horns. In the Offertorium, the complex textures of interlacing choral and instrumental voices were expertly defined; at the close the Choir delivered the text with affecting, poignant fleetness, ‘Quam olim Abraham’ (Which thou did promise …).

Replacing Tatiana Monogarova, the advertised soloist, Russian soprano Evelina Dobračeva sang with impressive single-mindedness and heroism. Positioned in the balcony with the main body of the Choir, she soared exquisitely above the massed forces, never shrill, floating with power and focus - a pure emblem of the sentiments of the ritual. Crystalline of tone and with powerful projection in the ‘Liber scriptus proferetur’ section of the Dies Irae, Dobračeva built to a majestic climax; later in the movement, soprano and choir responded with passion to the incisive violence of the percussive rhythms and the off-beat aggression of timpani and cymbals. In the ‘Libera me’, initially supported by some wondrously fleeting violin gestures, the soprano rose effortlessly above the accruing instrumental thunder as the asymmetrical tempi drove the music towards apocalypse.

Singing with the chamber orchestra, it is the two male soloists who, paradoxically, convey the most intimate experience and emotions, and who speak most directly to the audience. Presenting Owen’s ‘Bugles sang, saddening the evening air’ in the Dies Irae, German baritone Matthias Goerne movingly communicated the oppressive weight that burdens those who, ‘Bowed by the shadow of the morrow, slept’. Later in the movement, Goerne brought both a rhetorical grandeur and a disturbing sense of brutality to the poem, ‘Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm’. In the Sanctus, the agony of the restlessly questioning poet-speaker was conveyed, aided by some discomforting timpani strokes. Initially Goerne’s diction and pronunciation may have been less than clear, but it is worth remembering that the baritone role was composed for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (with Peter Pears singing the tenor part), and that the two soldiers represent the opposing forces in the war. This is most powerfully and intensely apparent in the final ‘Strange Meeting’; here, Goerne and the string players of the chamber ensemble condensed the horror, pain and senselessness of war. The ghostly reverberations of the line, ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’, were surpassed only by the unnerving emptiness of the final line, accompanied by deathly string tremors: ‘I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.’

Joining Goerne, tenor Ian Bostridge offered a typically penetrating and perceptive reading of the poetic texts. His unrelieved indignation in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ immediately challenged us, establishing a disconcerting mood, one enhanced by the probing clarinet solo which accompanies the lines, ‘What candles may be held to speed them all?/ Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes /Shall sine the holy glimmers of good-byes.’ ‘Move him into the sun’ was imbued with a ghostly disquiet, which was marvellously, if temporarily, calmed by the Choir’s consoling, major-key cadence, ‘Pie Jesu Domine … Amen’. Articulating the English soldier’s tale in ‘Strange Meeting’, Bostridge injected a startling, unpredictable energy as he described how he examined the corpses upon which he stumbled, ‘Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared’; the tenor’s voice accompanied by the responsive chamber orchestra, startlingly embodying the probing, springing movements of the dead. The full texture which accompanied Bostridge’s greeting, ‘“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn”, was almost unbearably poignant.

At the end of a performance which was simultaneously emotionally exhausting and exhilarating, the concluding choral Amen had a Mahlerian power and pathos. This was a performance that was both theatrical and spiritual, and made an immense impression on all present; the long silence which followed the final utterance, Jurowski’s baton suspended aloft, told of its emotional impact on those in the Festival Hall.

The Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise Festival is inspired by Alex Ross’s eponymous book which explores the social, political and cultural forces which shaped the art of the twentieth century. As we prepare for the centenary commemorations of the 1914-1918 war, the War Requiem’s fusion of Owen’s honest poetry - devoid of self-pity but angrily asserting the very Pity of war - and the timelessness of the Latin Requiem Mass, together with the circumstances of the work’s own commission - the re-consecration of a sacred building destroyed in yet another world conflict that Owen must have hoped his words would help prevent - remind us that we still have not heeded the Poets’ moral caution of the futility of war.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Vladimir Jurowski, conductor; Evelina Dobračeva, soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor; Matthias Goerne, baritone; Neville Creed, conductor (chamber orchestra); London Philharmonic Orchestra; London Philharmonic Choir; Trinity Boys’ Choir. Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, Saturday 12th October 2013.

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