Benjamin Britten: War Requiem

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
– 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 Dobra?eva 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, Dobra?eva 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 Dobra?eva, 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.

image_description=Wilfred Owen
product_title=Benjamin Britten: War Requiem
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Wilfred Owen