War Requiem Fifty Years On: A Magnificent and Moving Occasion in Coventry

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Britten: War Requiem: Soloists, CBSO and Choruses, Andris Nelsons (conductor), Coventry Cathedral 30.5.2012 (JQ)

Erin Wall (soprano)
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone)
CBSO Chorus
CBSO Youth Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons

On the night of 14 November 1940 the city of Coventry was devastated by a massive air raid. Hundreds of civilians died and the fabric of the city was reduced to rubble. The city’s medieval cathedral was largely destroyed. As part of the post-war rebuilding of Coventry it was decided to build a new cathedral and the architect Basil Spence came up with a radical modern design that triumphantly linked the remains of the old cathedral with its strikingly contemporary replacement. The new cathedral contains a great deal of significant modern artwork, including Graham Sutherland’s arresting floor-to ceiling tapestry, ‘Christ in majesty’, behind the sanctuary. Inevitably the design and construction of the new cathedral took time but on 25 May 1962 the building was consecrated. As part of the celebrations a three-week-long arts festival was organised and among the commissions for that festival was War Requiem. The première, given by the CBSO, took place on 30 May 1962. Fifty years to the day after that first performance the CBSO of 2012 returned to Coventry as part of the cathedral’s Golden Jubilee celebrations for a commemorative performance.

Much has changed in the intervening five decades, of course. With the exception of Dame Heather Harper, the soloists and conductors involved in the première have all now passed away. Poignantly, the great German baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who that night created the baritone part which Britten wrote with his voice in mind, died less than a fortnight ago. Fittingly, this performance was dedicated to his memory. At the first performance Britten decided against conducting the entire ensemble himself and directed only the chamber ensemble that accompanies the two male soloists, entrusting the direction of the chorus and main symphony orchestra to Meredith Davies. Since then it has become usual for one conductor to direct all the forces and on this occasion Andris Nelsons was firmly in charge of all the performers with the exception of the remotely-placed children’s choir. It crossed my mind during the evening that neither he nor any of tonight’s soloists were even born when War Requiem was first heard; this was a performance by today’s generation.

The acoustics of the cathedral were famously problematic at the première – with hindsight it was a huge gamble to put on the first performance of a substantial, new and complex score in a large, acoustically untried building. I wasn’t aware of significant issues on this occasion but I suspect two factors worked in the music’s favour this time. Firstly, for the first performance the musicians were placed in the choir of the cathedral, at the east end. This time the performance was given from the west end – as, I gather, is nowadays the normal custom for concerts in the cathedral – where the acoustics are better. Only the singers of the CBSO Youth Chorus were placed in the choir, an inspired decision as the distancing of their voices was just right. The other factor in overcoming any problems with acoustics is, I suspect, that fifty years on we know War Requiem so much better; if the acoustic causes some lack of clarity we can mentally fill in the gaps.

To be truthful, however, I didn’t find it necessary to use my imagination to fill in many gaps because Andris Nelsons did a marvellous job in keeping the textures as clear as possible while directing a performance of great emotional power and thrust. At the first performance the choir – a locally-recruited Festival Chorus – had difficulties with Britten’s music and were unsure of it. The CBSO Chorus had no such problems and sang with tremendous precision and assurance. Their work in the many quiet passages was admirable while they delivered the great climaxes with tremendous weight. Among the passages that impressed me were the fervent singing of the ‘Recordare’ and the precision with which they articulated the fugue in the Offertorium, especially the hushed reprise. Inevitably, there were times when the sheer power of the orchestra swamped them a bit but I suspect that’s inevitable in all but the most ideal acoustics, such as those of Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Of course, it helps when the choir is trained by Simon Halsey, surely one of the finest chorus masters in the world. He directed the members of the CBSO Youth Chorus, who sang their music with admirable assurance and clarity.

The CBSO played superbly. Nelsons can inspire them to play with shattering power when appropriate but they’re equally adept when finesse is required. They were on top form tonight. At the first performance Britten imported a specialist chamber group, the Melos Ensemble, to accompany the soloists. Did he not trust the CBSO? No need for any guests this time: the chamber group consisted of CBSO principals who acquitted themselves marvellously, providing acute and sensitive support for the two male singers.

The Canadian soprano, Erin Wall, was placed behind the orchestra in the middle of the first row of the choir. That placement was right, of course, because the soprano sings with the chorus. However, though I could hear Miss Wall perfectly well from my seat near the front I wondered how audible she would have been to the audience further down the nave, especially as she had to project her voice right across the orchestra. It seemed to me that she had to work hard to project her voice in passages such as ‘Liber scriptus’ in the Dies Irae. She doesn’t have a deep chest voice such as one has heard from the likes of Galina Vishnevskaya and which is desirable in the lower-lying stretches of the role. On the other hand, there was no trace whatsoever of anything approaching “Slavic wobble”; all the notes were hit truly and in the centre and I admired the clarity and dramatic ring in the upper register of her voice. Her affecting singing at ‘Huic ergo’ was particularly impressive, as was her fine contribution to the Benedictus where the long lines were a gift for her type of voice.

The two male soloists were placed at the front, immediately to the conductor’s right. The German bass-baritone, Hanno Müller-Brachmann, numbered Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau among his teachers and there were times when his singing put me in mind of Fischer-Dieskau both in terms of timbre and the slightly-accented English pronunciation. I thought he gave a very convincing performance. Fischer-Dieskau’s delivery of ‘Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm’ is unforgettable but Müller-Brachmann was impressive and strong in tone at this point. Elsewhere his full, round tone and good articulation of the words gave great pleasure throughout the performance and he was especially eloquent in ‘Bugles sang’. He made a telling contribution to the duet with the tenor during the Offertorium and in another duet, ‘Out there’, his biting singing was highly appropriate. Incidentally, in one of the very rare miscalculations during the performance I thought the chamber orchestra rather overwhelmed the two soloists in the latter section.

If the other two soloists were very good Mark Padmore was simply outstanding. ‘Move him into the sun’ was marvellously sung; I loved the subtle but telling inflection he brought to the words “Gently, gently its touch awoke him once”. The plangent tone he deployed in ‘One ever hangs where shelled roads part’ was absolutely ideal. In this poem his care for the words, evident all evening, was especially apparent and the exquisite way in which he floated the final rising phrase “Dona nobis pacem” was one of the high points of the entire performance.

Every time I see Andris Nelsons conduct I’m more impressed. This was the first occasion I’ve seen him conduct a choir since a family emergency obliged him to withdraw from the recent splendid Birmingham performance of The Dream of Gerontius (review). It seemed to me that he had the choir eating out of his hand; he focussed a significant amount of attention on them, especially in quieter passages, and the clarity of his beat and gestures must have been a tremendous help to them – and the orchestra – in an acoustic which is less favourable than that of Symphony Hall. Occasionally his tempi were a bit broader than I’ve heard previously – for example at the ‘Tuba mirum’ and when the ‘Dies Irae’ music is reprised in the Libera me – but he vindicated his tempo choices every time in a reading that not only made the most of the many dramatic moments in the score but which also observed the many subtleties in the score. An eagle-eyed attention to detail was consistently in evidence as was a genuine feeling for the emotional weight of Britten’s music. He’s clearly a master of the direction of large forces and surely his operatic experience was a factor in his success with this particular score.

Nelson’s direction of the work was compelling but he saved his best for the final movement, Libera me. He began at a daringly slow speed; I can’t recall hearing it taken so deliberately before. Later I checked the score and the initial tempo is marked crotchet = 63. Listening to the BBC recording I estimate the speed was about 51 bpm. Never mind that it was slower than Britten marked; it worked.  I have never heard the muffled percussion at the start of this movement sound so menacing. Nelsons invested the gradual acceleration and crescendo over the succeeding pages with hair-raising intensity; his control was masterly. After a mighty recapitulation of the Dies Irae the colossal climax that followed was truly awesome – and disturbing – in its power. Then the music slowly drained away until we were left with the near-silence over which the tenor intones the opening lines of Owen’s ‘Strange meeting’. Mark Padmore was mesmerising here; he and Müller-Brachmann rose to new heights of eloquence in this part of the work, maintaining the tension through great artistry. Müller-Brachmann’s delivery of those dread words of recognition “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” was magnetic and deeply moving.  When, a few moments later, he intoned “Let us sleep now” it came as a moment of release, almost as a benediction. The concluding ensemble – in which for the first and only time in the work all the forces are united – glowed. When the final chord died away there was a profound silence, lasting some 85 seconds, which spoke volumes; applause, though richly deserved and eventually given warmly, seemed almost an impertinence.

Fifty years on from its première War Requiem retains its power to move and to make listeners very thoughtful. In large part, of course, that’s due to the quality of Britten’s music and his inspired marriage of words from the Mass for the Dead and the poetry of Wilfred Owen. However, is it not also the case that War Requiem still speaks to us so profoundly because its message is no less valid and urgent today? “The pity of War” that Wilfred Owen expressed in his poetry is still with us today – we need look no further than the present carnage in Syria. Though it has some weaknesses, War Requiem remains one of the most significant works of art created in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century and its anniversary was marked magnificently and movingly in the building – itself dedicated to peace and reconciliation – that inspired its creation.

The performance was broadcast live by BBC Radio 3 and is available to listen online here for the next week. There was also a television transmission of the performance, which will be released on DVD in due course by Unitel Classica. Through the Arts Council’s thespace facility that broadcast can be streamed here by UK viewers until the end of October. Andris Nelsons and these performers will be marking the centenary of Britten’s birth by performing War Requiem again in Symphony Hall, Birmingham on 28 May 2013 (details here).


John Quinn