Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem will be fifty years old in May next year. Its relevance remains as keen and uncomfortable as a reflection of today’s world as it did in 1962. A number of anniversaries could easily have been marked by this performance, starting a series of major English choral works at the Barbican Centre, but perhaps most pertinent is the tenth since troops from the West arrived in Afghanistan. This performance, in tandem with the second performance, will be preserved by LSO Live, and it is difficult to imagine an account that would better deliver in terms of emotional heft and musical quality.
A crucial element lies in the preparatory work, getting the performing forces set up in appropriate relation to each other as directed by the composer. Barbican Hall, not the most flexible of venues, was nonetheless used to great effect. The boys’ choir was positioned up in the Gallery, while Sabina Cvilak stood front-centre of the sizeable London Symphony Chorus. Ian Bostridge and Simon Keenlyside were next to Gianandrea Noseda, who presided over the chamber orchestra of twelve, its personnel plucked from LSO principals.
The London Symphony Chorus was quite simply superb, finding full capacity in the fiery ‘Dies Irae’ passages, where the basses hissed their “confutatis maledictis” with barely concealed menace. In ‘Libera Me’ feelings ran equally high, the power of Britten’s portrayal of the end of days harnessed with an appropriate loss of control for which the composer was surely aiming. Yet perhaps the most affecting choral passages were the quietest, specifically those closing the ‘Requiem aeternam’, ‘Dies Irae’ and ‘Libera Me’ sections, where Britten asks for the quietest possible dynamic levels at a low register. These were wonderfully sonorous, the music opening out into a calming F major on each occasion.
That these closing utterances were so effective was in no small part due to Noseda, conducting instead of Sir Colin Davis, for whom these performances were intended. He offered a view of the work that kept the fast passages moving, and the ‘Dies Irae’ took off at quite a lick, the thrilling brass fanfares passing around the superbly marshalled trumpets and trombones. Where the conductor really excelled, however, was in his control of the chamber forces accompanying Ian Bostridge and Simon Keenlyside. There was little to no join between the choral ‘Requiem’ settings and the strange, often terrible Wilfred Owen poetry set so keenly by Britten. Each chamber orchestra member played with great intensity, clarinettist Andrew Marriner offering a memorable counterpoint to Keenlyside during the setting of ‘The End’. The contribution of percussionist Neil Percy ranged from the incisive report of the snare drum to rolling timpani depicting the “great gun towering toward Heaven” leading to the climax of the ‘Dies Irae’.
This was also Keenlyside’s finest moment, full-bodied of tone but latent with horror, and represented a considerable step on from ‘Bugles sang’, where he initially appeared edgy. Bostridge was similarly affecting in his delivery, though he was at pains to communicate even more directly with the audience, fixing the stalls with a stare as he delivered the uncomfortable and often confrontational tales of war. ‘What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?’ rang out as a cutting retort to the Requiem text, while in the bittersweet ‘Agnus Dei’ he found a beautiful sense of give and take as the harmony oscillated softly between B minor and C major. Bostridge feels this work within his bones – he sang “futility” with a careful but pronounced use of flatness to the pitch, finding more stress to short phrases such as “fatuous sunbeams”. The two male soloists were well matched, their duet as Abraham and Isaac interweaving seamlessly, while in the recitatives of ‘Strange Meeting’ time stood still, the awful countenance of enemies revealed to each other and somehow finding friendship, if not resolution.
Sabina Cvilak was also fully within Britten’s idiom, singing from within the heart of the chorus, and floating effortlessly above as she sang ‘Lacrimosa’, recovering from a brief moment where she lost her bearings. Only in the louder music was the balance occasionally compromised, the soprano voice less inclined to ring out over that of the chorus. The boys of Eltham College Choir deserve great praise for their contribution, singing from memory with great clarity and diction, their words needing no accompanying text for understanding. The beginning of the ‘Offertorium’ in particular was crisply delivered.
At the end Noseda modestly gave the podium to the soloists and choral directors. The conductor deserved a huge amount of the credit for overseeing an account that fully succeeded in asking the difficult questions that Owen’s poetry demands, channelled through music where emotion is never far from the surface. War Requiem’s relevance for the 21st-century looks set to grow still further with every conflict, supported as it is by compositional techniques and structures that amaze afresh with every performance, of which this one was undoubtedly amongst the finest it has ever received.
- Concert played again on Tuesday 11 October at 7.30 p.m.