War Requiem

Voluntary on Tallis’s Lamentations [world première]
War Requiem

Susan B. Anthony (soprano)
Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone)

Finchley Children’s Music Group
London Symphony Chorus

Timothy Bond (organ)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 1 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This concert started with the world première of a recently found piece for solo organ that Benjamin Britten wrote in 1940 when he was in America. He left the piece behind (along with a couple of others for organ) when he returned to England. Elizabeth Mayer, with whom Britten and Pears had stayed, willed various papers to the Britten Estate and Colin Matthews located the piece in Aldeburgh at the behest of Timothy Bond. To be honest, it did not make too much of an impression. The harmony is quite dissonant – rather unusually for Britten in this period – but the feature that has been remarked upon is the descending/ascending phrase (played mainly on the pedals) which anticipates a similar idea used in the ‘Agnus Dei’ of War Requiem. There is certainly a kinship, though perhaps one should not be overly surprised in the output of a composer who was so prodigious. The Voluntary is a typically well-crafted curiosity.

Forty-two years after its first performance in Coventry, War Requiem stands as testament to the mastery of a composer writing at the height of his powers, as well as being a public statement of Britten’s pacifism. As Michael Tippett observed after Britten’s death: “It (War Requiem) is the one musical masterwork we possess with overt pacifist meanings.” But there was very little pacifying in this performance, which seemed to convey a sense of impending catastrophe at almost every turn. One noted Britten’s use of drums of various kinds (though the players did not always use the specific sticks requested in the score) and a processional feel was noticeable in places where one hadn’t previously registered them. The ‘Benedictus’, for instance, far from affording a degree of lyrical contrast, seemed to be moving with a quite menacing tread.

The London Symphony Chorus was in especially fine fettle, with vivid projection of the text and attention to articulation being notable. Occasionally, some passages started too strongly, such as the basses’ and tenors’ first entry in the ‘Dies Irae’, which was way above the pppmarking. But the climaxes were powerful and thrilling – whether resplendent in the ‘Sanctus’, or properly terrified in the ‘Dies Irae’ and ‘Libera me’.

The quiet passages, of which there are many, were sung with security of pitch (no mean feat) and yet well projected. Credit must go to Chorus Master Joseph Cullen and to Grace Rossiter the sub-conductor of the Finchley Children’s Music Group, a mixed choir as opposed to just the boys specified in the score. Though singing was admirably secure, their placing in relation to the other forces was questionable, that is to the left of the organ console, which enabled them to be heard clearly but rather obviated Britten’s desire that their sound should be ‘distant’, as should that of the organ, here the in-situ RAH instrument which, of course, was anything but ‘distant’: the overall effect was not in keeping with the composer’s expressed intention.

The LSO was on good, responsive form, whether in the weight of the main ensemble – odd details of scoring were illuminated in an instructive way, and Britten’s fertile instrumental writing was conveyed with full intensity – or in the subtlety of the chamber orchestra, whose individual members should have been identified in the programme. This twelve-piece group, which accompanies the tenor and baritone soloists in settings of Wilfred Owen’s World War One poems, played Britten’s variegated sonorities with extreme care. The articulation of Britten’s ‘accompaniments’ – for want of a more adequate term – was one of the high points of the performance.

Alongside the chamber orchestra, Ian Bostridge and Simon Keenlyside gave their well-honed readings of Britten’s remarkable Owen settings. Keenlyside’s well-focussed tone is always a pleasure to hear, and at times his singing was fully commanding and authoritative. The horrible interjection in the ‘Dies Irae’ of “Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm” was given with an almost perverted kind of nobility, crowned with a ringing top G. Elsewhere, Keenlyside was out of synchronisation, and at the start of the final Owen line, “Let us sleep now” – with all the forces joining together for the only time – the security of the performance as a whole was momentarily compromised.

Ian Bostridge’s reputation as a Britten singer of distinction has always puzzled me, as his rather monochrome timbre seems quite unsuited to writing which demands shadings and phrasings of the most subtle kind. Bostridge seemed to be taxed by the need to project into the RAH, so the first setting, “What passing bells”, lacked essential vehemence. Some of Bostridge’s softer singing was more convincing, even if the ‘Agnus Dei’ lacked ideal poise, though Davis’s inexplicably slow tempo here would not have aided the singer. Elsewhere, in an attempt to ‘illuminate’ the text, Bostridge veered towards a quite inappropriate sprechstimme.

Perhaps inevitably, Susan B. Anthony lacked the sheer heft of Galina Vishnevskaya, for whose distinctive voice Britten conceived the solo soprano’s music. Anthony’s was a much more soft-grained approach. She began well, although I didn’t care for the excessive use of portamento in the ‘Liber scriptus’. Elsewhere, there was a degree of insecurity, such as in the ‘Sanctus’, and some flat singing. One wondered, frankly, whether her voice at this stage of her career is ideally suited to this music.

Sir Colin Davis’s interpretation was deeply considered, and its intensity and integrity profoundly impressive. His galvanising of his forces in the big moments was exemplary, and the apogee of the ‘Libera me’, at the entry of the organ, was utterly – and uncomfortably – apocalyptic. Commendably, he insisted on making little or no pause between movements – much to the annoyance of those who continued to make a noise after some movements had started. Britten’s War Requiem has lost none of its power to shock – especially in a reading such as Davis gave.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 9 August at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

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