The War Requiem is monumental in scale but highly personal in nature. Britten wove a selection of poems by Wilfred Owen into the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, translating resonances between the two texts into graphic musical descriptions. The trumpets of the last judgment become bugles harrying soldiers to their death. In the Offertorium he seizes upon the reference to “Abraham and his offspring” to use a poem in which Abraham, unlike in the Bible, does sacrifice his son Isaac “and half the seed of Europe, one by one.” The orchestra never lets us forget that we are in the midst of a massacre: shells wail, canon booms, and bells toll for the dead. Dissonance, especially the persistent use of a jarring tritone, permeates the tonal foundation of the work with unease. Amidst the doubt and despair, a children’s choir points to hope and regeneration.
For the world premiere in 1962, at the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, the soloists were to symbolize peace between old enemies: a Russian soprano, a British tenor and a German baritone. Because the Soviet authorities denied Galina Vishnevskaya permission to travel, Belfast-born Helen Harper ultimately sang alongside tenor Peter Piers and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The nationalities of the soloists at the Concertgebouw, soprano Elena Stikhina, tenor Mark Padmore and baritone Michael Volle, mirrored Britten’s original idea. However, despite this superior trio of soloists, three choirs with an excellent track record and the RCO, the performance lacked overall dramatic charge. Britten divides his titanic forces into three units occupying different sections of the stage. The soprano solo, choir and large orchestra perform the Latin mass, the tenor and baritone sing Owen’s poetry with a chamber orchestra, and a boys’ choir performs parts of the liturgical text accompanied by an organ. Noseda had the last two groupings in hand, but failed to retain tension in the first one.
Refulgent brass fanfares notwithstanding, the main choral passages did not gel. The balance was off-kilter, with the Netherlands Radio Choir and Flemish Radio Choir often overpowering the orchestra. Their first entrance on the initial Requiem aeternam was far too loud, presaging the lack of dynamic finesse that dogged the performance. Noseda seemed to favor sudden fortes over nuanced dynamic build-ups. The women’s voices at the start of the Recordare should emerge ethereally from the mist and smoke. Instead, they just showed up. Even the exultant “Hosanna in excelsis” that bursts from a cacophony of choral murmurs in the Sanctus was not what it could have been. Although tonally pleasing, the chorus, atypically, also lacked textual bite, depriving the serrated Dies irae of its full, rapid-fire impact. Fortunately, Elena Stikhina, singing from the back of the stage, repeatedly came to the rescue with her gleaming, sovereign soprano. Cleanly vaulting across the wide intervals of the Liber scriptus and precisely fluent in the sinuous Sanctus, she delivered one gorgeous solo after another.
In the poems sung by the two soldiers from opposing sides, the performance soared to a higher level. From baleful double bass to puckish woodwinds, the twelve-piece ensemble played exquisitely, in complete flow and fusion with the soloists. Padmore and Volle did justice to the searing poems as only first-rate song recitalists can. With a hundred hues and shades, Volle tapped into the tragedy of wasted lives and lost happiness. His narratives were taut with restrained anger, uncoiling in his last solo on the words “I am the enemy you killed, my friend”. Padmore was the electric center of the performance, making every moment count. Noble and urgent, he captured the desolate pathos of the piece, nowhere more piercingly than in “Futility”. The National Kinderkoor, a mixed children’s choir instead of the boys’ choir prescribed in the score, was another outstanding asset. Articulating the text with exemplary clarity, they personified the mellifluous voice of innocence. At their entrance with a pointed Domine Jesu Christe during the Offertorium it was as if fairy lights came on.
The three divisions only perform simultaneously in the final section, the Libera me, when a shuddering choral ensemble gives way to the meeting between the two dead soldiers and then a whispered In paradisum. It is here that Noseda finally stretched a strand of sustained tension. Chorus and orchestra settled into a happier sound balance, bringing the evening to a satisfying conclusion. Given the aggregate talent on display, there is no reason why the two repeat performances should not be of the same quality from start to finish.
Britten: War Requiem
Elena Stikhina, soprano; Mark Padmore, tenor; Michael Volle, baritone. Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda. Netherlands Radio Choir. Flemish Radio Choir. Nationaal Kinderkoor. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Heard at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, on Thursday, 11th of October, 2018.
image_description=Gianandrea Noseda [Photo courtesy of www.gianandreanoseda.com]
product_title=Fine performances in uneven War Requiem at the Concertgebouw
product_by=A review by Jenny Camilleri
product_id=Above: Gianandrea Noseda [Photo courtesy of www.gianandreanoseda.com]