Carlo Rizzi and RWCMD give a Moving Performance of Britten’s War Requiem

13/11/2014

Benjamin Britten,  War Requiem:  Alwyn Mellor (soprano), Adrian Thompson (tenor), Simon Keenlyside (baritone), RWCMD Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra, Children’s Choir, College Chorus / Carlo Rizzi (conductor), Cardiff, St. David’s Hall, 09.11.2014 (LJ).

To mark the hundredth anniversary of World War One, Carlo Rizzi conducted the orchestra and chorus of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in a touching performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Op. 66 at Cardiff’s St David’s Hall.

At once surprising yet fitting, this War Requiem was composed by an unwavering pacifist. A conscientious objector during the Second World War, Britten’s work intertwines Wilfred Owen’s war poetry with the Latin text of the Mass for the Dead. Justifying this marriage of old and new, Britten quotes Owen in an epigraph to his composition: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is to warn.” With this heartfelt tribute to Britain’s most popular and tragically short-lived war poet (serving as the commander of a rifle company, Owen was killed on 4th November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal in France, only one week before the Armistice), Britten echoes Owen’s sentiment in the closing lines of his most time-honoured poem where he dismisses the prestige of being a soldier at war: “The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est / Pro patria mori.” In the opening lines of this poem, Owen dispels the myth of being a valiant, knightly soldier; trading puerile pomp for something altogether more sobering. Owen’s soldiers are “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags”. Accordingly Britten’s bugle does not resound as a triumphant call to arms, but beseeches: “Dona nobis pacem” (Give us peace). Tenor Adrian Thompson’s performance of this final section of Agnus Dei was superb. Displaying graceful elasticity and accurate pitch, Thompson combined ample fortitude with heartfelt sensitivity to give a most convincing performance.

As a convoluted (yet coherent) six movement structure containing a narrative song cycle for tenor and baritone, both the music and title of Britten’s piece speak of this jarring coalescence of a plea for peace amidst unrest. Traditional sacred music collides with fragmented passages of Owen’s poetry, which act as acerbic commentary on the Requiem. In blending the anguish of man’s personal plight and nationalistic patriotism, Britten is unparalleled. This piece proves that music alone can confront (and in the most compelling cases, challenge) humanity’s failings whilst offering a warm glint of hope. In concordance with the unmatched power of music to elide all boundaries in its transcendence, Britten remarked that “The composer’s duty, as a member of society, is to speak to or for his fellow human beings”. Britten’s recurring motif of a tritone interval between C and F sharp underlies the whole piece, mirroring this exchange between conflict and reconciliation that features throughout the work, giving it an unresolved ambivalence. Only at the very end of the piece when the tenor sings “It seems that out of battle I escaped”, do the disparate musical timbres harmonise together. At this final stage the multifarious textures of the full orchestra, chamber orchestra, soprano, tenor, baritone and chorus integrate, resounding in an imploration to “Let us sleep now”.

However, such resting quietude is not fully granted as Britten’s War Requiem is set in a landscape where, to quote French General Joseph Joffre’s order to his troops on September 5th, on the eve of the Battle of the Marne:

“Every effort must be made to attack and drive back the enemy. A soldier who can no longer advance must guard the territory already held, no matter what the cost. He must be killed where he stands rather than draw back.”

It could be said that through the extensive percussion section containing two antique cymbals, glockenspiel, gong, bells, vibraphone, castanets, Chinese blocks, whip, all manner of drums, triangle, and tambourine; Britten brings out this incensed furore. However, Britten’s use of percussion doesn’t contain Joffre’s militant fervency; it is much more sombre and gloomy as he frames his piece with a cold death-knell. The following extract from German author Ernst Junger’s description of the Somme Battlefield from his novel Storm of Steel is a much more Britten-like setting:

“A shell-hole strewn with bully-tims, broken weapons, fragments of uniform, and dud shells, with one or two dead bodies on its edge…this was the never-changing scene that surrounded each one of all these hundreds of thousands of men.”

It is in this inconsolably shattering terrain that Britten leaves his listeners stranded and alone, lamenting with soprano Alwyn Mellor on “this day full of tears” (Dies irae). Mellor’s voice had an arresting transparency, as devoid of piercing shrillness, it floated serenely above the groundswell of the orchestra. Mellor’s performance was controlled throughout; she demonstrated fine musicianship through her humility and emotive responsiveness to the orchestral backdrop. Italian conductor Carlo Rizzi was sublime in creating this barren landscape of futile hope and sorrow by keeping any grand orchestral sweeping gestures within a tight rhythmical frame. Along with Rizzi, Neil Ferris and James Bingham (chorus directors for the college chorus and children’s chorus, respectively) must also be congratulated for their fine leadership.

Commissioned for the opening of Basil Spence’s new Coventry Cathedral – a replacement for the 14th century St Michael’s Cathedral that was bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Coventry blitz – Britten’s War Requiem hearkens back to the origins of the political turmoil which possessed Europe between 1914 and 1945, and tends to the trenchant battles of Flanders and Picardy. Living as an exile in America, Britten’s work was conceived in an atmosphere of ongoing unrest. Composed mostly in 1961 (completed in January 1962), Britten’s work emerged out of the stultifying fear surrounding the Cold War, the erection of the Berlin Wall, and the immanence of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It would seem that when the baritone sings “After the blast of lightning from the east”, the audience would have been thinking of nuclear war rather than Owen’s poetic setting. This terrifying proximity of war was heightened to an almost unconceivable pitch in the performance with West Berliner Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the baritone. Dieskau’s presence made the Soviets prohibit the participation of Galina Vishnevskaya (the Russian soprano for whom Britten wrote the piece), rendering this as much a piece to mark the Cold War as one buried in the trenches of the First World War. In this performance Simon Keenlyside was an engaging baritone. Keenlyside’s strengths resided in his convincing story-telling manner. In his first solo beginning “Bugles sang”, Keenlyside made good use of Britten’s rests and silences to punctuate the melody with drama and suspense.
Now, one hundred years since the outbreak of an era of unquantifiable destructiveness, Britten’s War Requiem is as relevant as ever. Speaking with untrammelled fervency on the nature of music and war, Britten commented:

It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature and everlasting beauty of monotony.

Speaking of such painful unrest, Britten is not a soldier who, acting as sacrificial scapegoat, scribes his bloody “allegiance to the state” (to quote from Agnus Dei). Dissenting from those who “Lay down their life”, in the final section of his War Requiem (Libera me) Britten reaffirms his objectionist standpoint where he regards war as unnecessary destructiveness when the baritone sings: “I mean the truth untold, / The pity of war, the pity war distilled”. Concordantly, alluding to the contemporary pertinence of this piece; the acclaimed tenor Ian Bostridge commented that:

“[…] in the more than 50 performances in which I have participated, I have felt the power of the work to address the present, Britten’s purposes triumphing in the persistence of the message, though the bombing continues. “The blood of children” to quote from Britten’s last song cycle, “stares from the broken stones.”

Amidst daily reports of worldwide tension and ever seeping bloodshed, Britten’s War Requiem is a bugle call “saddening the evening air” (Des irae). In a world consumed by ashes where man’s blood paints the ground beneath marching feet, Britten does not compose an adroit march, neither does he salute to the clap of religious cannons. Instead, Britten composes a War Requiem which resolutely scorns the ugly gluttony of the trumpet-call to arms. This composition bravely ‘shines a perpetual light’ on “a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns” (Offerorium). Appropriately sensitive and commanding, the RWCMD’s attentive brass section brought out Britten’s complex attitude towards war in contrasting light and dark shades.

Britten himself acknowledged the stylistic influence of Requiems by other composers, such as Giuseppe Verdi’s, on his own composition. Furthermore, Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor is also recognisable as a source of inspiration for this challenging work. Shortly before the premiere of his War Requiem in May 1962, Britten confided to a friend:

I was completely absorbed in this piece, as really never before, but with considerable agony in finding the adequate notes for such a subject (and such words!), and dread discovering that I’ve not succeeded.

Indeed, Stravinsky thought that this piece was overly sentimental, quipping that the audience should have tissues to the ready, however its enduring popularity has rendered this work one of Britten’s landmark compositions. Testimony to his well-established status, The Scallop by Maggi Hambling is a sculpture dedicated to Britten on the beach at Aldeburgh. Significantly to both Remembrance Sunday and the War Requiem, the edge of the shell is engraved with the words from Peter Grimes: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”.

Leaving the audience sympathising with the soprano and chorus as they extoll: “Tremens factus sum ego, et timeo” (I am seized with fear and trembling), this memorial concert was appropriately harrowing and thought-provoking. It was a pleasure to listen to and watch Rizzi’s earnest musicians dispel Owens’ old lie in their heartfelt performance of Britten’s War Requiem.

Lucy Jeffery.

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