Fifty years on from its Coventry Cathedral unveiling, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem now sits comfortably at the heart of the ‘big’ choral repertoire. Which is not to suggest that such a profound utterance should ever become a concert-hall staple: the work’s many-layered textures belong in vaster spaces, with the two male soloists and chamber orchestra in the foreground, the soprano set in the middle distance along with the choral forces, and the boys’ choir and chamber organ echoing beatifically from aloft and afar.
While it may be straightforward enough to cram the requisite number of performers into the Royal Festival Hall, the achievement of sufficient depth and balance within a standard-sized concert venue is another matter. Lorin Maazel and the Philharmonia solved these acoustical problems by ignoring them, and to a surprising extent they got away with it. The admirable Tiffin Boys’ Choir, arrayed in the royal box, sang to all intents and purposes from within the audience itself, yet their polished excellence made this impropriety work.
Mark Padmore and Matthias Goerne were placed within the orchestra, stage-left along with the chamber musicians – a setting that seemed to suit the two singers and accommodated some sweet baton exchanges between Maazel and the ever-alert Aidan Oliver. Only Nancy Gustafson seemed at sea, lost within the chorus – which was just as well since the evening caught her on squally, effortful form.
Like Verdi’s Requiem, a distant forebear with which it shares a number of traits, War Requiem has more than a hint of the operatic about it. Britten’s vision in alternating the Latin text of the Mass for the Dead with some of Wilfred Owen’s most potent war poems is both musically inspired and dramatically overwhelming, and the singing of Padmore – who grasps the music’s nature as well as its notation – was especially thrilling. Exciting and affecting in equal measure, it was the performance of a great singer in his prime.
Where the tenor rang with confidence, the baritone’s reading felt unduly contained, notwithstanding Goerne’s stirring resonance. The German singer’s voice was its rich, ripe self but he seemed ill at ease, burying his nose in the score, visibly counting beats and ducking the high note at the end of ‘Be slowly lifted up’. The two men’s taxing duet, ‘So Abram rose’ (an acid re-invention of the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, complete with extended quotations from the composer’s Canticle II), ends with some cruelly demanding off-the-beat ‘tag’-singing, and here Goerne’s palpable tension made for uncomfortable listening. He nearly got it right, but not quite.
The Philharmonia Chorus and Voices were on rousing form – the immensity of “Tremens factus sum ego” in the ‘Libera me’ will live long in the memory – but the sopranos need to improve their diction. It’s anybody’s guess what words they were singing during the ‘Recordare’ – and if that is the case in the confines of the Royal Festival Hall, I cannot imagine what we’d have been able to understand in, say, St Paul’s or the Royal Albert Hall.
The Philharmonia Orchestra, by contrast, was superbly articulated in every section. The work is an orchestral spectacular, and Maazel delivered a solid, thoroughly-considered reading whose highlight was an unusually symphonic view of the thirty-minute ‘Dies Irae’. Just occasionally in the great choruses there was a slackening of focus and rigour, but overall the conductor fought a valiant battle even if he didn’t quite win the war.