Britten Bemuses the Swiss

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Britten,War Requiem: Tonhalle Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (conductor), Tatiana Pavlovskaya (soprano), Toby Spence (tenor), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone), Zürcher Sing-Akademie (chorus-master: Tim Brown), Zürcher Sängerknaben (chorus-master: Konrad von Aarburg) Tonhalle, Zurich 25.4.2013 (JR).

Britten: War Requiem

I should lay my cards on the table straight away. I had the good fortune to sing this work, as a boy treble, with the Highgate School Boys’ Choir way back in 1963 and record it on the venerated Decca recording under the baton of the composer. I can recall countless rehearsals, performances (including one, courtesy of the Gulbenkian Foundation, in Lisbon) and recording sessions and this great work got under my young skin. Much more recently I sang the tenor chorus part in Zurich with the Gemischter Chor Zurich and the Tonhalle Orchestra. It’s a work therefore which is dear to me and which takes me back to my younger years.

I was therefore eagerly anticipating a performance with a line-up of top soloists and a famous conductor, but in the end I was left strangely unmoved; and I have been trying to analyse what, at least for me, went wrong.

The soloists did, indeed, make a fine trio. Tatiana Pavlovskaya was much in the mould of Vishnevskaya, imperious, properly hard-edged, with a slight tendency to swoop up to the high notes, though she improved as the performance went on. Toby Spence, who won the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Singer of the Year award two years ago, was a firm, rich tenor and delighted particularly in “One ever hangs..”; and finally Hanno Müller-Brachmann, who attended Fischer-Dieskau’s master-classes in Berlin, has been and will be singing the War Requiem around the Continent (for instance with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham, Hanover, Dresden -poignantly – and Paris in May and June under the baton of Andris Nelsons). The men however somehow failed to hit the spot: Spence seemed emotionally unengaged; Müller-Brachmann’s baritone lacked a richness of tone and colour. They did however blend very beautifully for “When lo! An angel called…” From my seat at the back of the hall, even though on the balcony, I could hardly make out the words – even though I know them by heart. The Swiss audience will have had no chance, unless they could follow the minute text in the programme, in dim light. Obviously surtitles are out of the question in a concert hall (or are they?), but perhaps every audience member should be given a free copy of the words of the Wilfred Owen poems before the concert and be given a chance to study them. (There was a pre-concert talk an hour before the concert started, in a smaller hall to the side of the main auditorium, which I sadly could not attend, but I suspect only a small dedicated number of the audience actually attended).

Britten asked for the boys’ choir to be invisible. They are supposed to represent angels in heaven. If one had actually seen these boys one would have thought they were the chorus from Billy Budd – they wore their trade-mark sailor suits. Dutoit placed them in the main foyer, just off the stalls, meaning the doors to the foyer had to remain open during the entire performance and sight connection between conductor and chorus was clearly not optimal. Dutoit had to turn round and duck to bring them in. Both trebles and altos, however, managed to sing well, in tune, with sufficient volume, and in all the right places.

The normally impressive chorus seemed strangely to be not always quite at home with the work, despite the fact that their chorus master Tim Brown hails from Westminster Abbey and was Music Director at Clare College, Cambridge. Their numbers (usually around 40) had been swollen to nearly 100 (with four male altos) which certainly gave the chorus sufficient volume for the explosion of sound in the Libera Me. They were particularly impressive too in the Sanctus.

The Tonhalle Orchestra, including the chamber orchestra, gave a very good account of themselves even though they were not, for the most part, centre stage.

Dutoit on the podium is not the first conductor one would think of for this piece or composer and his elegant manner did not always suit the brittleness of the music. His tempi were sometimes unorthodox, favouring swift tempi, especially a much too fleet opening Requiem aeternam which kept the chorus on their toes but did not aid Spence with his diction.

Judging by the number of unmuffled coughs, and the rather lukewarm response at the end, I felt the audience were bemused by the music which many will not have known. This was a subscription concert, which meant that three consecutive performances were virtually sold out; relatives and friends of choristers will have helped. Britten’s sound-world is well known to British music-lovers but not to many on the “Continent”. Add to that the fact that the work is bitty: two soloists singing English poetry, one singing Latin in a completely different style, the chorus veering from ppp to fff, the offstage boys singing Latin (with some wonderfully discordant harmonies), and effectively two different orchestras, and styles of orchestra, on stage.

The Swiss did not know what to make of it all. It needs something more than this performance could offer to bring it off successfully and convince the unattuned listener that the work is, as is generally recognised, a great modern masterpiece. It was recorded for Swiss radio SRF 2 Kultur, to be broadcast later in the year (24th November at 9 p.m.), giving more local listeners the chance to get to know this wonderful work.

John Rhodes