Britten’s War Requiem Reconciles Past Differences

GermanyGermany Benjamin Britten, War Requiem, Op. 66: Emily Magee (soprano), Mark Padmore (tenor), Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Tölz Boys’ Choir, Max Hanft (organ), Bavarian Radio Choir, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons (conductor), Philharmonie, Gasteig, Munich, 14.3.2013 (MC)



Mariss Jansons photo:Markus Dlouhy
Mariss Jansons photo:Markus Dlouhy

The year 2013 marks the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth and in response the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra has pogrammed six of his works this season. Written in 1961/62 Britten’s War Requiem was commissioned for the consecration ceremony of the reconstructed Coventry Cathedral after its destruction by German bombing in 1940 during World War Two. This statement of Britten’s fervent pacifist convictions is a setting of traditional Latin texts interspersed with verse from anti-war poems by the First World War poet Wilfred Owen. Britten’s friend, the composer Michael Tippett and a fellow pacifist, described the War Requiem as “the one musical masterwork we possess with overt pacifist meanings.”

On the title page of the score Britten quoted Wilfred Owen’s poetry:

“My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity…

All a poet can do today is warn.”

It seems particularly fitting for the Bavarian RSO under Mariss Jansons to choose to perform the War Requiem in Munich a city that itself experienced terrible destruction from Allied Bombing raids during the Second World War.

With the text of the traditional Latin Requiem Mass interspersed with nine secular poems by Wilfred Owen and the large orchestral and choral forces divided into three distinct groups the work can bewilder the listener. As intended the première was given at Coventry Cathedral in May 1962. To further emphasise the spirit of reconciliation Britten had originally intended his soloists to be from Russia, Britain and Germany: namely Galina Vishnevskaya; Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Unfortunately the Soviet authorities prevented Vishnevskaya singing at the performance.

Starkly reflecting the horrors of war as it does the War Requiem isn’t always easy to enjoy. In this performance at the Munich Philharmonie, Maestro Mariss Jansons and his three soloists from America, Britain and Germany together with his Bavarian orchestral and choral forces made a marvellous case for the score. The first performing group singing the Latin Mass is the mixed chorus together with soprano soloist Emily Magee accompanied by the large orchestra. I have heard the Bavarian Radio Choir and orchestra perform twice previously in Munich and as I expected they were on excellent form throughout. Clearly the choir had been superbly prepared by Michael Gläser with singing of glowing resilience marked by remarkable clarity and unison. From the chilling Dies irae, to the moving Lachrymose (Dies irae) and the dramatic intoning of Quam olim Abraham (Offertorium) the combination of mixed choir and large orchestra was a remarkably successful collaboration.

This was my first look at soprano Emily Magee, a native of New York City, whose voice was unquestionably in fine condition. After some early unsteadiness and sounding a touch shrill Magee soon settled down to provide a performance of the Latin text that was satisfying both dramatically and musically. Highly reverential in the Benedictus (Sanctus), Magee’s singing of the Tremens factus sum ego (Libera me) generated tremendous power and was one of the highlights of the performance.

In the second group, all the hard work from the Tölz Boys’ Choir singing Latin texts under their director Ralf Ludewig, certainly paid dividends. Heard off-stage and accompanied by Max Hanft at the organ the enthusiastic choir sang their hearts out to uplifting effect. I especially enjoyed their atmospheric rendering of the Domine Jesu Christe (Offertorium) so refreshingly sung and impressively in-tune too.

The third group comprised the tenor and baritone soloists performing the Wilfred Owen texts to portray the victims of war and accompanied by the chamber orchestra (that looked around a dozen strong). London born tenor Mark Padmore knows this Britten work intimately and was in assured form with his reliably expressive voice well suited to the part. Padmore sounded especially convincing in Move him into the sun and Think how it wakes the seeds from the Dies irae section. It seems unfair to single out one performer from such an admirable group of musicians; however, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the magnificent performance from Bavarian Christian Gerhaher who this season is the Bavarian RSO’s artist in residence. With crystal clear diction, the rock steady Munich-based baritone projected impressive amplitude, revealing his appealing rich, dark tone. With significant melancholic colouring, Gerhaher’s compelling feeling for the text was heard to striking effect in After the blast of lightning from the East from the Sanctus section.

Positioned to the conductor’s left at the front of the stage, I must say how much I enjoyed the playing of the chamber group of musicians who steadfastly accompanied the pair of male soloists. Without a weak link in the chosen groups of musicians Mariss Jansons ensured that the War Requiem was performed with the greatest possible advocacy. Ensuring close control over his forces, he managed to generate considerable emotionally intensity. Clearly responding powerfully to the conviction of the chosen texts that emphasise the futility of war, the well attended Munich audience showed their appreciation for what proved to be a memorable event of reconciliation rather than a mere concert.

Michael Cookson