Britten’s War Requiem @ the Royal Festival Hall

To the Royal Festival hall to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski with Evelina Dobraceva soprano, Ian Bostridge tenor, Matthias Goerne baritone and Neville Creed conducting the chamber orchestra. along with the London Philharmonic Choir and Trinity Boys Choir perform Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

It was premiered in 1962 at the opening of the new cathedral in Coventry, built on the ruins of the old one, demolished like half the city in a catastrophic German air raid.

Among requiems it is notable because Britten intersperses the texts of the Latin requiem (the Missa pro Defunctis) – the ones set by Mozart, Brahms, Verdi and numerous other composers – with poems by the greatest poet of the Great War, Wilfred Owen. Thus it harks back to, or can be seen as a summation of, Britten’s lifelong interest in creating song cycles.

What struck me in performance was:

  • The size of the chorus – I counted 145 choristers – when they sang forte in unison as during the Dies irae and the climax, before Strange Meeting, I was pushed back in my seat by the power, and the power of Britten’s intentions to overwhelm us.
  • By striking contrast, the smallness of the chamber orchestra of about 8 players who accompanied the tenor and baritone when they sang the poems. And the way, throughout the requiem, Britten used tics and habits which I associate with Peter Grimes and Billy Budd – the use of little trills on trumpet or horn to punctuate phrases, of a snare drum to accompany phrasing – both these and other tics have the affect of distancing and alienating the music so it is not lush and orchestral and comforting. There’s something of Stravinsky’s ‘Histoire du Soldat’ or Weill’s Weimar songs in their deliberately patchy, scratchy orchestration.
  • I am not sure this was a great production. Despite myriad high points (including the piercing soprano voice in the Lacrymosa and the swaying orchestration of the final Let us sleep) the offstage voices of the boys choir (which I take to be intended as a heavenly choir) were so offstage that at moments it became inaudible; I found the deep notes of the baritone in the Abraham poem so low that I wouldn’t have been able to understand it if I hadn’t had the text in front of me.

There was a minute’s silence after the last notes died away. Maybe that is traditional and it was certainly well observed here. And as the applause started I felt a tear well up in my eye. My great uncle fought at the Somme. “Such a waste, a bloody waste,” he said on the only occasion he was ever known to swear. But I wasn’t as moved as I have been listening to the CD in the privacy of my home. As soon as the clapping died away the usual audience chit-chat started up and I felt we hadn’t been as traumatised as we should have been.

John Eliot Gardiner conducts the North German Symphony Orchestra in Britten’s War Requiem on Youtube

Three years after the War Requiem‘s premiere, in 1965, Gyorgi Ligeti published his Requiem. Innovative though Britten’s introduction of Owen’s poetry might have been, comparison with Ligeti makes it clear that it is an innovation by moving backwards, towards 50-year old (and very traditional) English poetry and using the small-scale orchestration which appears throughout the operas. It is an innovation from Britten’s roots, a recapitulation: whereas Ligeti has invented a dazzling new way for music to exist altogether and, arguably, a more appropriate sonic response to the horror of 20th century war.

Related links

Wilfred Owen 1893-1918 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Wilfred Owen 1893-1918 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

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