Christine Brewer (soprano)
Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor)
Gerald Finley (baritone)
London Philharmonic Choir
Tiffin Boys Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Rob Witts
Reviewed: 8 May, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
An expectant audience filled the Royal Festival Hall for a concert that offered more sense of occasion than most. Britten’s “War Requiem” was the inevitable choice to mark the 60th-anniversary of VE Day (Victory in Europe); as the LPO’s programme note reminded, Kurt Masur was a 17-year-old prisoner of war in 1945, and he brought his customary gravitas to the evening’s proceedings.
“War Requiem” is not a great work; in the lengthening shadow of hindsight, its contingencies and limitations become more visible. However, the occasion of its commission, to mark the rebuilding in 1960 of the bombed-out Coventry Cathedral, was one of awesome pressures, and it is probably as good a response as could have been composed. It carries Britten’s pacifist beliefs honestly, and retains its power as a crucible for remembrance.
The LPO’s account was dignified and technically immaculate, the orchestra playing with its customary warm and unified sound; from the opening sepulchral chords of “Requiem aeternam”, the London Philharmonic Choir was accurate and assured, with the Tiffin Boys an incisive and characterful presence from the balcony. However, it was the superlative trio of soloists who really animated the performance: Anthony Dean Griffey’s plangent tenor was an excellent foil to Gerald Finley’s stentorian baritone, both fine actors bringing Wilfred Owens’s poetry to vivid, spitting life. Christine Brewer, stationed by the organ console, blazed with righteousness in the “Dies irae”. There was telling contrast between the fulsome ensemble sound of the Latin mass sections, and the spiky chamber orchestra that accompanies Owens’s poetry that Britten uses as an ironic gloss, which was set into the main orchestra stage-left and directed by Neville Creed.
Masur’s interpretation emphasised the work’s religious solemnity. What he missed were its emotional extremes: his conducting was too measured to convey the unhinged horror of battle in the “Dies irae”, and the choral crescendo in the “Sanctus” was stodgy rather than ecstatic. However, this was forgotten in the rapt conclusion, a vision of paradise almost within reach, the hall filled with voices striving upwards towards a less brutal world. The silence that followed the final “Amen” was long and deep.