War Requiem

War Requiem

Lada Biriucov (soprano)
Neil Jenkins (tenor)
Stephan Loges (baritone)

Goldsmiths Choral Union
Philharmonia Chorus
New London Children’s Choir

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Brian Wright

Reviewed by: Edward Lewis

Reviewed: 22 November, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In a year that marks the 60th-anniversary of the ending of the Second World War, and on not only St Cecilia’s Day but also Britten’s own birthday, a performance of “War Requiem” seemed entirely apposite. In addition, Brian Wright performed this highly moving, significant work as Britten had intended – with a Russian soprano, an English tenor and a German bass – musically unimportant perhaps, but a symbolic reminder of the work’s pacifist intentions.

With the combined forces of the Goldsmiths Choral Union and the Philharmonia Chorus ranked impressively behind the full force of the Royal Philharmonic, with a battalion of the New London Children’s Choir in reserve in the gallery, one fully expected the high drama of war to be ever-present throughout what is a highly dramatic, indeed almost operatic, work. It was therefore disappointing to hear the already battle-weary sound of the chorus at the opening of the ‘Requiem Aeternam’. A timid, non-flowing rendering of the opening sections was confirmed in later movements by a demonstrable reluctance to go over the top when duty called, as occasioned at moments in the ‘Dies Irae’, when it appeared to be taking all of Brian Wright’s strength to urge his singers into keeping up with him. The chorus also suffered from repeated attacks of excessive sibilance, with protracted “S”s leaving one more expecting a stage pyrotechnic and cries of “He’s behind you” than a terrifying evocation of the horrors of warfare.

Far more passion was evident in the singing of Neil Jenkins and Stephan Loges. Jenkins’s interpretation was both moving and accurate, with very clear expression of Wilfred Owen’s emotive texts, while Loges’s more openly sensitive approach worked effectively in later movements, such as the lightly accompanied sections of the ‘Sanctus’. The combination of the two did sound unmatched however, both in tone and power, although the duet section of the ‘Dies Irae’ was wonderfully rendered with an almost gleeful irony and cynicism.

The chamber orchestra that accompanied the tenor and bass passages fully matched both the passion and sensitivity exhibited by the soloists, with some perfectly judged virtuoso playing by the solo winds. The tender baritone solo at the conclusion of the ‘Sanctus’ was beautifully enhanced by John Anderson’s appropriately muted, tenderly phrased oboe passages.

Britten assigns the more delicate and innocent passages to the soprano soloist and the children’s choir. While the New London Children’s Chorus gave a very accurate account of its sections, overcoming the many difficulties involved in singing a complex work from the far-distant gallery, the tone did not fully evoke the expected aura of innocence, with very English vowel sounds and phrasing. Of course, this may indeed have been necessary in order to project the sound into the void of the Hall, especially when attempting to match the RPO and combined choruses.

Not so for Lada Biriucov’s powerful, evocative singing. The drama of the suitably almost tearful ‘Lacrymosa’ was balanced by the desperate soaring elsewhere, nearly matched by the now battle-fuelled chorus. Despite this one still felt courage was lacking. If Britten’s intent was to bring home the true nature of war, this performance may have succeeded too literally, with a lot of time spent in minor manoeuvres over small issues, interrupted by flashes of spine-tingling terror and brilliance.

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