The Three Choirs Festival Commemorates the Great War with War Requiem

July 27, 2014

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Three Choirs Festival (2)  Katherine Broderick (soprano), James Oxley (tenor), David Wilson-Johnson (baritone), Choristers of the Three Cathedral Choirs, Festival Chorus. Philharmonia Orchestra, Peter Nardone (conductor), Worcester Cathedral, 26.7.2014 (JQ)

 Britten – War Requiem, Op. 66

Peter Nardone, directing his first Three Choirs Festival since becoming Director of Music at Worcester Cathedral, has devised a mouth-watering programme.  As he says in his introduction to the programme book, ‘the spirit of optimism, hope and joy’ runs through the festival. However, in the year in which we mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I it would be impossible – and wrong – not to reflect on that event. The choice of Britten’s War Requiem for the first major evening concert, therefore, had a sense of inevitability – and rightness – about it.

Of course, by the early 1960s when Britten composed the work the world had experienced further horrific conflicts after what had been supposedly ‘the war to end all wars’, notably the Spanish Civil War, World War II and the Korean War. Additionally the spectre of nuclear conflict now hung over the world – not for nothing has one writer described the cathartic climax in Britten’s ‘Libera me’ as “a ‘mushroom cloud’ moment”.  However, though War Requiem is a protest against all wars and a heartfelt plea for peace, Britten’s use of the poems of Wilfred Owen ensured that his piece would have a particular resonance with World War I.

This Three Choirs performance could have suffered a setback before a note had been sounded. On the very morning of the performance the soprano soloist, Susan Gritton, was obliged to withdraw as a result of an overnight illness. Happily, Katherine Broderick, the scheduled soloist for Mahler’s Second Symphony in a couple of days’ time, was on hand to step into the breach and did so magnificently: no allowances needed to be made for a ‘last minute substitute.’  Miss Broderick sang from a position on the tiered staging where the choir was placed; thus she was quite some distance from my seat about halfway down the nave yet she had no trouble whatsoever in projecting her voice. She was imperious in the cruelly demanding solo part in ‘Liber scriptus’ and equally so in the Sanctus yet she also produced lovely gentle singing in the Benedictus.

The Owen settings were in the hands of two highly experienced British singers. I had the impression, perhaps wrongly, that James Oxley took a little while to settle. In ‘What passing bells’ it was often hard to hear him distinctly against the chamber orchestra. Though this ensemble played incisively and often sensitively throughout the evening I felt that whenever they played loudly they did so – or were allowed to do so – a little too loudly; a notch lower on the volume control would have worked wonders ad helped the soloists. Oxley grew into the performance, however. His singing of ‘Move him into the sun’ was expressive and plangent. As the setting unfolded he conveyed the anguish and uncomprehending accusation of the poem (‘Was it for this the clay grew tall?’) very well; perhaps it was significant that much of the accompaniment for this setting is fairly light.  Later on I admired his delivery of the Owen poem in the Agnus Dei movement, not least the beautifully fashioned final rising phrase, and also his expertly controlled, desolate singing at the start of ‘Strange meeting’.

Opposite him, David Wilson-Johnson was more overtly expressive. Of all the principal performers he seemed the most ready to take risks. He made a strong impression from the start with his dolefully expressive delivery of ‘Bugles sang’, the words clear and the tone firm. Later he conveyed graphically the hectoring menace of ‘Be slowly lifted up’. An example of his risk-taking was the venom with which he invested the words ‘May God curse thee’: perhaps it was just a little overcooked but, if so, not by much. His contribution to ‘Strange meeting’ bespoke long experience with this role. In particular, his delivery of the fateful words, ‘I am the enemy you slew, my friend’ and the subtle interaction between the soloists at this point was memorable.  

I imagine it was a hot, uncomfortable evening for the Festival Chorus, ranged in tiered rows behind the orchestra. They gave a highly creditable performance – though I suspect there will be more to come from them as the week unfolds and, we hope, the current heatwave abates somewhat. The choir was powerful in the ‘Dies Irae’, competing well with the (rightly) brazen brass fanfares. I was a bit disappointed at the slight lack of bite in the basses’ singing at ‘Confutatis’ but they weren’t helped by an over-cautious tempo: despite plaintive singing from the tenors the slow tempo meant that this passage didn’t generate sufficient desperation. The choir did the first ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ fugue in the Offertorium very well though perhaps its hushed reprise could have been quieter. They saved their best for the final movement; the tremendous build-up of the ‘Libera me’ was very well done and then the chorus made a strong contribution to the concluding passage of reconciliation.

War Requiem requires two choruses; there’s a crucial part for a separate chorus of trebles. For this the choristers of all three cathedral choirs were brought together. To achieve the necessary distancing they were positioned outside the cathedral in the cloisters and sang, I presume, with the doors into the cathedral opened wide. The boys produced incisive, clear and confident singing and did extremely well. I suspect that many members of the audience glanced enviously at them when they were shown by the close circuit TV cameras. There they were, in shirt sleeves, in the cool cloisters while we all sweltered in the much warmer cathedral.

The boys weren’t the only cool performers. Peter Nardone kept a cool and controlled hand on the tiller throughout the performance. In many ways that’s admirable for War Requiem is a complex and emotive score. However, I had the impression, both from what I heard and from what I saw on the close circuit TV, that perhaps Mr Nardone’s conducting was a bit too carefully controlled and that he didn’t quite galvanise his forces sufficiently. At times it seemed that the music was being held on slightly too tight a rein with risk eschewed. I’ve already mentioned the ‘Confutatis’; I would have welcomed more of a blaze to the ‘Hosanna’ in both the Sanctus and Benedictus while the shattering climax of the ‘Libera me’, though impressive, didn’t shake me to the core as has happened at some other live performances I’ve attended. I thought it was telling that Mr Nardone appeared particularly to energise the choir during the first few minutes of the ‘Libera me’ for I found this movement was the most engaged part of the work; here the performance really took flight. Elsewhere I felt that something of the necessary electric charge was missing – or, at least, didn’t communicate itself to me. That said, there was a great deal to admire in this performance and we can look forward with confidence to the coming week.

John Quinn   

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