Britten’s War Requiem, London

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

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

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‘Recordare’ was abruptly and dramatically superseded by the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

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

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

image_description=Wilfred Owen
product_title=Benjamin Britten: War Requiem
product_by=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.
product_id=Above: Wilfred Owen