New York Philharmonic/Maazel – Britten’s War Requiem

War Requiem

Nancy Gustafson (soprano), Vale Rideout (tenor) & Ian Greenlaw (baritone)

New York Choral Artists
Dessoff Symphonic Choir
Brooklyn Youth Chorus

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel
Lionel Bringuier [conductor of chamber orchestra]

Reviewed by: Andrew Farach-Colton

Reviewed: 11 June, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Lorin Maazel is concluding his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic with a series of concerts billed as “A Grand Finale”. Britten’s “War Requiem” is first of the two large-scale works on offer (the other is Mahler’s Eighth Symphony), and, fittingly, the performance summed up of the entire Maazel era.

Lorin Maazel. Photograph: Silvia LelliPerhaps the first thing to say is that, come September, Alan Gilbert will be inheriting an orchestra that’s in absolutely fantastic shape. In the seven seasons that Maazel’s been at the helm, the musicians have become increasingly confident and their playing ever more responsive and brilliant. The opening of ‘Requiem aeternam’, for example, was startling in its textural clarity, supple unanimity of ensemble, and focused intensity of tone. It was like entering a graveyard where there were no worn or faded stones, and instead all the tombs were freshly and starkly chiseled.

Certainly the colors and textures of Britten’s score are compelling on their own, and at first it didn’t seem to matter much that mystery had been replaced by lucidity; one simply marveled at the sounds being made. As the performance progressed, however, it began to seem as if “War Requiem” were nothing more than a virtuoso showpiece. The ‘Dies irae’ sounded terrific, with its blazing brass fanfares and emphatic syncopation, but there was precious little sense of urgency or terror.

Nancy Gustafson was the most effective of the three vocal soloists. She sang with the expressive nobility of a long-suffering opera seria character, which is more or less what her part suggests. (She is, after all, singing in Latin, while her male counterparts sing in English.) Tenor Vale Rideout took a while to connect text and music. In the first half of the work, his singing was woefully bland, though he finally found an apt note of plangency in the ‘Agnus Dei’. Baritone Ian Greenlaw has a handsome voice but he failed to convey any hint of the music’s irony or gravitas; his interpretive demeanor was unflappably (and inexplicably) cheerful.

The generally insipid singing of the male soloists was particularly surprising given that the accompanying chamber orchestra was ably and fervently led by the young French conductor Lionel Bringuier. Indeed, Bringuier’s contribution was one of the evening’s high-points.

The firm-toned, incisive and characterful singing of the combined New York Choral Artists and Dessoff Symphonic Choir (prepared by Joseph Flummerfelt) was also consistently impressive. In the opening of ‘Libera me’ the choristers produced long-breathed, snaking phrases that evoked a sense of desperate, aching supplication. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus started off strongly, too, though the boys and girls grew tired as the performance went on; their ensemble became increasingly ragged and their intonation sagged.

It’s easy to forgive the children for losing focus and stamina. Excusing Maazel for robbing “War Requiem” of its emotional potency is another matter. There were some breathtaking episodes, to be sure; ‘Sanctus’ had awesome sonic splendor, for instance, and moved with a magisterial swagger that set the spirit soaring. In the end, however, it was just another in a string of marvelous-sounding moments.

It’s especially disappointing because when Maazel does connect with a big, complex piece, as he did in a concert performance of Strauss’s “Elektra” last December, the result can be staggering. But all too often, despite being scrupulously rehearsed and played to the nines, Maazel’s interpretations come across as coolly calculated. And with a work like Britten’s “War Requiem”, such coolness is, frankly, unpardonable.

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