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11 Dec 2013

War Requiem, Chicago Symphony

As part of this year’s tribute to Benjamin Britten the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, and soloists recently gave several performances of the composer’s War Requiem.

War Requiem, Chicago Symphony

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: "Two bewildered old ladies stand amid the leveled ruins of the almshouse which was Home; until Jerry dropped his bombs. Total war knows no bounds. Almshouse bombed Feb. 10, Newbury, Berks., England." February 11, 1943 [Source: U.S. National Archives]


The featured singers were soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, tenor John Mark Ainsley, and baritone Matthias Goerne. In addition to the Chicago Symphony Chorus expertly prepared by Duain Wolff, the Chicago Children’s Chorus showed the careful supervision of its Artistic Director Josephine Lee. The Orchestra, soloists, and choruses were brought together under the direction of conductor Charles Dutoit.

Britten’s large-scale work was performed with deep respect yet also with the vitality that is needed to render a fresh impression of its predominantly pacifist sentiment. The soft choral repetitions on “Requiem aeternam dona eis” [“Eternal rest grant to them”] at both the beginning and end of the piece established such a requisite tone and allowed for variations by soloists, orchestra, and the choruses within these parameters. In the first solo piece, “What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?,” Mr. Ainsley made an energetic leap into the poetic text by Wilfred Owen. His clear and idiomatic pronunciation underscored the ironic use of words from the realm of prayer and church-services used here to describe gun-and shellfire. Ainsley’s skilled sense of vocal decoration showed in his melismas on the words “prayers” and “rapid” to eluciate the violent sounds of war, just as “wailing” was similarly emphasized as both the sound of a rushing shell and the emotions elicited by its destructive force. High pitches on “held” and “speed” in the third stanza led into a gradual deceleration as Ainsley sang the concluding line, “and each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds,” with a tempo matching the import of the text.

The intervening orchestral and choral passages devoted to the “Kyrie” and the “Dies irae” were played with stately emphasis and with careful attention focused on exposed writing for the brass. The second poem of Owen following immediately features the baritone as solo performer. In “Bugles sang” Mr. Goerne showed sensitivity to modulating his voice in the higher reaches at the start of the poem in Brittten’s scoring, while he ended the piece with an impressive, nearly bass emphasis in “Bowed by the shadow of the morrow, slept.” Between those parts Goerne’s projection on sustained pitches showed an unpleasant waver which tended to diminish his dramatic effect. At the entrance of the soprano and the return to Latin text, the “Liber scriptus” was declaimed with authority and a secure sense of pitch. Ms. Pavlovskaya gave an impressive performance with high notes sung forte on the first and third syllables of each verse culminating in awe before the “Rex tremendae majestatis” (“King of tremendous majesty”) of the final stanza. The concluding verse as an appeal for mercy was sung with an equally effective piano line.

In the first of several duets for tenor and baritone, “Out there we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death,” Ainsley and Goerne traced their vocal lines at times together, at times apart, as they portrayed two soldiers caught up in a combat platoon facing Death. In an emphatic reaction to this chilling prospect, both singers embellished their lines, “we laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.” Ainsley’s final recitation of “for Life, not men” with soft introspection led the pair back to the sober reckoning of war’s generic toll. Following the stately pronouncements of the choral “Recordare” Goerne invested Owen’s poem, “Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,” with sinister force. The metaphor of an arm for a “gun towering toward Heaven” was caught in the baritone’s chilling curse demanding that this limb be separated “from our soul.”

In each of the next few numbers for chorus and soloists bells sound at the conclusion as if in dignified recognition that individual participants of the conflict are commended to the earth. Ainsley’s elegy for a fallen soldier, “Move him into the sun,” was especially poignant for his emphasis on the “fatuous” sunbeams which can no longer break this sleep. The next duet for baritone and tenor, introduced with distinctive performances by the CSO woodwinds, was held together expertly under Dutoit’s leadership. The narration by the soloists of the story of Abram and Isaac was punctuated by the children’s chorus singing the Latin “Offertory.” In this ironic statement on the Old Testament sacrifice being fulfilled through the horrors of war, the ensemble worked together as seamlessly as in the following “Sanctus.” Here Pavlovskaya performed with full chorus in her declaration to the deity. Embellishments taken on “sanctus” and “in nomine Domini” as well as a rising melisma on “in excelsis” (“in the highest”) were executed at full voice with the chorus providing an echoing background. In the final duet for baritone and tenor, “Let us sleep now,” an increasing complexity of melodic line was again supported by the choral forces in their growing appeal for peace. The final shudder of “Amen” united the ensemble in this epitaph for an end to conflicts.

Salvatore Calomino

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