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Benjamin Britten 1968
22 Aug 2014

Britten War Requiem - Andris Nelsons, CBSO, BBC Prom 47

In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.

Benjamin Britten : War Requiem. Susan Gritton, Toby Spence, Hanno Müller-Brachmann, Andris Nelsons : Conductor, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, BBC Proms Youth Choir, BBC Prom 47, Royal Albert Hall, London 9=21st August 2014. A review by Claire Seymour


However, there may be few performances in which environment and context more powerfully merge to such thrilling and heart-rending effect than this account by Andris Nelsons and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (who together also gave the 50th-anniversary performance in Coventry Cathedral). Gathered in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall precisely 100 years since the opening of hostilities in Europe, with the 250 members of the BBC Proms Youth Choir massed behind the instrumentalists and rising precipitously into the raked Choir tiers, and with the CBSO Children’s Choir perched aloft in the Gallery, the audience shared a palpable tense expectancy and a sense of the nobility of the occasion. When the soloists took their places - English soprano Susan Gritton isolated in the centre of the choral forces and English tenor Toby Spence and German baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann seated at the front of the stage, enveloped by the chamber orchestra - it was hard not to imagine the two men as ciphers of past lives lost.

What made the final impact of this performance so surprising, though, was the rather subdued and reticent mood which Nelsons initially cultivated, as he built the climaxes surely and meticulously, the pace steady, the textures and voices always clear. This may have been a sensible approach given the reverberant acoustic of the Hall; but it was also a discerning one, for the release of emotion which marked the start of the ‘Libera Me’ and the stirring drive which accumulated towards the irresolution of the work’s ending, allowed the words, sentiments and passions previously communicated to find a potent and poignant focus at the close.

The ‘Requiem Aeternam’ began softly and discreetly, the young voices sounding fresh and light above tolling tritones of the earthly bells; when they were joined by the CBSO Youth Choir conducted by Marc Hall in the Gallery, the gently floating phrases - ‘Exaudi orationem meam,/ Ad te omnis caro veniet’ (Hear my prayer; to the all flesh shall come) - had an other-worldly quality, as if sent to those below as a message from celestial spheres.

The BBC Proms Youth Choir is formed from young singers drawn from all quarters of the British Isles who, trained in their regions, come together in Birmingham for an intensive course under the directorship of Simon Halsey in the days preceding their now annual (the Choir was founded in 2012) Proms performance. And, what a contribution they made. There were so many special moments but one particularly striking passage was the rhythmically free choral chanting in the ‘Sanctus’, which wonderfully represented the image of totality expressed by the Latin text, ‘Pleni sunt caeli et terra Gloria tua’ (Heaven and earth are full of glory). This preceded a glorious ‘Hosanna in excelsis’; and the asynchronies of the choral murmuring were made still more spine-tingling by their timbral contrast with soprano Susan Gritton’s resonant opening declaration, ‘Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus,/ Dominus Deus Sabaoth’.

Throughout, Nelsons chose to highlight not the minutiae of timbre and colour - although these elements were certainly not neglected and there were some thrilling moments such as the outburst of dazzling tuned percussion at the opening of the Sanctus - but rather the architectural breadth and grandeur of the whole. Rhythms were precise, and there were some superb, crisp polytonal fanfares from the brass and disturbing distorted percussive march-beats - and timpanist Patrick King played no small part in the creation of such an exhilarating rhythmic energy.

Similarly, Nelsons used the fugal passages in the ‘Offertorium’, which border Owen’s/Britten’s account of the parable of Abraham and Isaac, to establish first a buoyant optimism and then, following Abraham’s terrible sacrifice - ‘But the old man … slew his son,/ And half the seed of Europe, one by one’ - an unsettled restlessness, the fugal variants both echoing former Requiem settings and mocking their liturgical and musical ancestors. The CBSO Children’s Chorus added greatly to the irony, through their ethereal opening call to God to deliver the souls of the faithful dead from the pains of hell, and their uncanny ‘Hostias et preces tibi Domine laidis offerimus’ (To thee, O Lord, we offer sacrifice, prayer and praise), which accompanies the recommencement of the uneasy, fragmented fugue.

Nelsons remained in total command of the extensive forces and form. The asymmetrical pulses of the ‘Dies Irae’ and ‘Agnus Dei’ were urgent but controlled, and while the tempi were generally quite slow, the various contrasting sections were skilfully and convincingly crafted into a seamless, inevitable whole.

In this regard, the three soloists strongly conveyed the essence of Britten’s juxtaposition of universal Christian consolation and individual tragedy and experience. Susan Gritton’s consoling soprano rang out warmly and richly above the more delicate choral timbre, the lyrical ‘Lacrimosa’ a particularly touching interruption of the cold tolling bells which frame the movement. In the ‘Libera me’, the drama of Gritton’s single line, ‘tremens factus sum ergo’ (I tremble and I fear’), was ominously complemented by powerful playing by the brass and percussion.

Toby Spence’s appreciation of poetic form and expression was evident from the first phrase of ‘What passing-bells’, which interrupted the choir’s promise of eternal rest with impact but without undue melodrama. Spence’s every word was clear, even those lines which were articulated almost as a whisper. He vibrantly lifted Owen’s words from the page, and sang with affecting emotional commitment; typically impressive was the hauntingly still passage at the end of the ‘Dies Irae’, ‘Move him into the sun -/ Gently its touch awoke him once’, which formed an agonising afterword to the pleas to God of Gritton and the chorus to show mercy at the Day of Judgement.

Baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann’s first entry was similarly affecting, the hushed sorrow of ‘Bugles sang, saddening the evening air’ delivering a persuasive rebuke to the flashing trumpets which had rung so glitteringly in the preceding ‘Dies Irae’. Müller-Brachmann sang with admirable control and assurance throughout, his noble declamation and rich, smooth tone elegant and unfussy. Though tackling a foreign tongue, he communicated with real directness and the openness of the baritone’s phrasing conveyed conviction and assurance.

Both Spence and Müller-Brachmann proved versatile in their responses to the text, especially in their duets. Conjoining in the ‘Dies Irae’, ‘Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death’, they presented a stubborn and bitter obstacle to the subsequent animated assertion of the choral tenors and basses: ‘Confutatis maledictis, Flammis accribus addictis, Voca me cum bendictis’ (When the damned have been confounded an to bitter flames consigned, summon me among the blessed.’

Concluding an eloquently simple rendition of the ‘Agnus Dei’, Spence’s quiet ‘Nobis pacem’ seemed to inspire a new level of emotional immediacy. The slow, sombre opening of the ‘Libera Me’ evoked a funereal tread which grew with gripping intensity into a shattering climax, the huge orchestral cry underpinned by the enormous, tense swelling of the RAH’s organ played by Julian Wilkins, who moments before had swung theatrically into his place in the loft.

Spence communicated the mystery and eeriness of the opening passage of Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’, but it was with the entry of Müller-Brachmann’s dignified baritone that I found myself literally holding my breath, so hypnotic was the expressive declamation and the retreat to occluded shadows for the grave ultimate verse, ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend. I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned/ Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed./ I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.’

The two protagonists of Owen’s poem are of course in Hell. When the two choirs and Gritton combined for their final gentle utterances, the bitter irony of their words, ‘In paradisum deducant te Angeli’, was gripping, especially as Nelsons, laying down his baton, coaxed a tone of such comforting quietude from the young voices of his chorus - a tone which was pure, natural and open, and which was so painfully challenged by the work’s final tolling bells.

Bringing his palms together, Nelsons gently silenced the choral ‘Amen’; the conductor, seemingly overcome, as were many, by Britten’s disturbing paradoxes and challenges, remained as if in prayer, for some minutes. The silence of remembrance was absolute throughout the Hall.

Claire Seymour

Susan Gritton, soprano; Toby Spence, tenor; Hanno Müller-Brachmann, baritone; Andris Nelsons, conductor; BBC Proms Youth Choir; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

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