David Hill conducts Britten’s War Requiem with The Bach Choir and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

War Requiem, Op.66

Sally Matthews (soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor) & Alan Opie (baritone)

The Bach Choir
Eltham College Trebles

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
David Hill

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 27 November, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

David Hill prefaced this performance of War Requiem with an eloquent and moving tribute to the late Sir Philip Ledger, then proceeded to conduct a heartfelt account of Britten’s choral masterpiece. If the chorus and orchestra did not always respond to his lead with care and precision, there was certainly no doubting the sensitivity and conviction that drove his interpretation.

Refreshingly, given recent experiences of this work, the three soloists were an ideal team. John Mark Ainsley may have been below his lustrous best (there were moments when his voice seemed reluctant to do as it was told) yet no other tenor of today is better able to locate the plangent centre of Britten’s vocal lines. Although grounded in the English tradition, there is a keening Italianate edge to Ainsley’s tone that rent the heart during ‘Move him into the sun’ and ‘One ever hangs where shelled roads part’. He was partnered in these grief-filled Wilfred Owen settings by the ageless Alan Opie, sombre of mood and rich of timbre, and by an impeccable chamber orchestra led by Stephanie Gonley.

It fell to Sally Matthews to deliver War Requiem’s seraphic solo-soprano part, a responsibility that can rarely have been fulfilled with greater immediacy or emotional integrity than here. In the way she cradled the score there was a physical vulnerability redolent of the Pietà, yet despite the warmth of her sound Matthews had no difficulty in projecting (from the side of the orchestra, set well back) above Britten’s surging tuttis, nor in negotiating the music’s challenging dips into dramatic-soprano terrain.

The Trebles of Eltham College were flawlessly drilled, even though their sound was neither distanced nor ethereal. That sense of scale, which Britten made clear he expected, would have been no easy feat in the RFH whose acoustic always ensures an aural experience that is up close and personal.

Elsewhere, unfortunately, there was a disappointing sense of the workaday about this performance. ‘Routine’ is not a word one normally associates with War Requiem, but on this occasion both the RPO and the Bach Choir (an earlier incarnation of which sang on the composer’s Decca recording) fell short of the excellence shown elsewhere. Scrappy brass-playing was a recurring problem, while some of the massed singing was imprecise, especially in the work’s first hour when the tenors had ragged moments and sopranos simply sang too loudly in hushed passages. As for the triple-tongued vocalisation of “Pleni sunt coeli et terra Gloria tua” (in the ‘Sanctus’), it was little more than a gabble.

The moments of greatest emphatic impact, such as “Sed signifier sanctus Michael” (‘Offertorium’), were more successful, and the great final statement by the massed forces – “Let us sleep now” – was beautifully phrased by David Hill who brought the work to a conclusion that was majestic in dignity and overwhelming in tragedy.

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