War Requiem – 10th November

War Requiem

Elena Prokina (soprano)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Thomas Mohr (baritone)

BBC Symphony Chorus, New London Children’s Choir, BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 10 November, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

It was almost inevitable that the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice, or ’Remembrance Day’ as it is known in the UK, would be different in the wake of the September 11 tragedy. Sales of the poppy have doubled this year – without doubt in homage to the six thousand people that died exactly two months ago. Britten’s War Requiem stands as a testament to the futility of war. Written forty years ago for the consecration of Basil Spence’s new Coventry Cathedral, War Requiem satisfies Britten’s long-held pacifist beliefs. It is “an act of reparation,” to use the composer’s own words, not only between the Allies and Germany, but also as an attempt to bridge the ever-widening gulf at that time between western powers and the soviet union.

This concert mirrored the spirit of the first performance in May 1962, with a Russian soprano, English tenor and German baritone. I say mirrored because, in 1962, due to soviet visa difficulties, Heather Harper replaced the intended soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya.

I must add to the other, very positive statements on the Barbican Hall’s new acoustic. The chorus’s clarity of diction, a point I know that Leonard Slatkin feels extremely important in this work, was no doubt helped by the recent refurbishment. Though not to diminish the work of conductor, choruses and orchestras (there are two!) who presented a performance of gravitas and understanding, the boys’ voices, marked “distant” in the score, was, for me, too remote; placed back-stage their sound was muffled and I wonder if alternatives were considered, perhaps one of the upper galleries at the back of the hall?

The score suggests that two conductors are needed – one for the full orchestra and one for the chamber group. At the first performance Meredith Davies and the composer took the two roles respectively. Here Slatkin conducted both, which gave the performance a more consistent feel. Elena Prokina, perching precariously at the centre-back of the chorus, fell victim to the distance between herself and the conductor and was a little behind the beat in her opening solo, “Liber scriptus…” – this mistake was not made again. John Mark Ainsley’s rendering of Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Move him into the sun”, took on an almost ’Grimes-ian’ sense of madness, accepting war as the ultimate futility.

It is very easy for War Requiem to loose its way about two thirds of the way through. The ’Sanctus’, with its accelerating tremolo on metallic percussion and piano followed by the chanting of “Pleni sunt caeli et terra Gloria tua” (Heaven and earth are full of your glory) can often appear contrived. Not so here with the hushed whisper from chorus and orchestra gradually building to the brilliant ’Hosanna’, a pleading ’Benedictus’ and a mystified “after the blast…”. This is Britten reconciling the conflicts within himself, not only as a pacifist but also as an outsider, a homosexual in a world where it was still unacceptable.

The closing notes of the final ’Libera me’ are, as with the opening ’Requiem aeternam’, left to the choir alone. “May they rest in peace. Amen”. At that moment, I cannot think that there was not a single person who wasn’t remembering the lives that were taken so wickedly two months ago. Britten must have had similar thoughts as he completed War Requiem; the Korean War ten years earlier had left deep scars on the lives of many, and the dedicatees of War Requiem are four of the composer’s schoolboy friends, three of whom died in the 1939-45 war. Britten prefaces the score with more words from Wilfred Owen: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity … All a poet can do today is warn.”

Please God may we heed that warning and to all people on both sides that have lost their lives in this latest example of man’s inhumanity to man, may they too rest in peace.

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