Impressive Britten War Requiem in Birmingham

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, War Requiem: Erin Wall (soprano), Mark Padmore (tenor), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone), CBSO Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Children’s Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 28.5.2013. (RJ)

In his pre-concert talk Simon Halsey, the highly experienced choir master of the CBSO Chorus, was keen to stress Birmingham’s close associations with Britten’s War Requiem. The CBSO had premiered the work at the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral on 30th May 1962, and he recalled that one of his first tasks on appointment to the CBSO Chorus was to prepare them for Sir Simon Rattle’s recording of it in 1983. Since then the Chorus has made the work its own, so to speak, and performed it several times. They will do so again over the next four weeks (along with the Orchestra) when they take it to Coventry, Paris, Hanover, the Frauenkirche in Dresden and St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

“We’re so proud to do the War Requiem and take it on tour,” remarked Mr Halsey, and it was reassuring to learn that we would be in the hands of such an experienced body of singers. He pointed out how influential the work had been in Western music having been the first to interweave the words of the Latin Requiem Mass with English war poetry. Britten’s works have been so successful outside the UK, especially in Europe, in his estimation because “his music speaks so clearly to the rest of the world”. Clarity, he suggests, is the hallmark of this work: there are no unnecessary notes.

An atmosphere of unease was created at the outset by the choral murmurings of the opening Requiem aeternam, the gloom dissipated by reference to perpetual light. Then came a glorious outburst of song from the Youth Chorus high up at the back of the auditorium before the unease returned. Mark Padmore’s singing of Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth moved from feelings of anger to profound grief to the accompaniment of subdued bugle cries. A quiet Kyrie from the Chorus completed the section.

I was reminded of Verdi’s Requiem when the Dies Irae with its dramatic brass fanfares and the staccato choral singing burst on to the scene. One sensed keenly awe and dread in the Mors stupebit sequence which was followed by a moving account by bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann of the short Bugles sang sequence which drifts into despair. Canadian soprano Erin Wall made her entrance closely followed by the semi-chorus in Liber scriptus continuing the atmosphere of nervous tension. The male soloists resorted to defiance and bravado in Owen’s The Next War making the gentle prayer Recordare pie Jesu of the women’s chorus which followed appear like a touch of sanity in a brutish world. But the horrors of war soon returned as Hanno Müller-Brachmann described the terrifying spectre of a cannon “towering toward heaven, about to curse” and Andris Nelsons unleashed a terrifying battery of sound proclaiming the Last Judgement. Mark Padmore’s disconsolate rendition of Owen’s Futility punctuated by fragments of the Lacrimosa was laid to rest with a wonderful choral pianissimo.

The bright voices of the Youth Chorus pleading for the souls of the departed at the start of the Offerterium were followed by some robust fugal singing of Sed signifer by the chorus as they sought the aid of St Michael, the patron saint of Coventry. The two male soloists came together again in Owen’s poem The Parable of the Old Man and the Young which relates the story of Abraham and Isaac where the last minute intervention of an angel prevents the patriarch from sacrificing his son. The singers cleverly lulled the audience into feeling all would work out well with beautiful harmonies when referring to the angel, making the final twist to the tale so bitterly devastating as the old man slays his son ……. “and half the seed of Europe one by one”. The Youth Chorus returned to close the section with further reference to sacrifice.

The Sanctus was characterised by some rousing hosannas for brass and chorus contrasted with a reflective Benedictus and Müller-Brachmann’s wisfful rendition of The End as he surveysa scene of carnage. And there was more soul searching in the following section in which stanzas from At a Calvary near the Ancre sung by Padmore were interspersed with the Agnus Dei sung by the chorus.

The final section, Libera me, was a tremendous climax, both dramatically and emotionally. In the Tremens factus choirs and orchestra (especially the brass and percussion) burst into a horrific cacophany of sound which as good as plunged the audience into the middle of a battle. This was Verdi – but far more terrifying. Then came one of Wilfred Owen’s most striking and harrowing poems, sensiStrange Meeting, in which the poet meets in death the man he has killed. It was sung with dignity and sincerity by Padmore followed by Müller-Brachmann who effortlessly imparted meaning to every word and note. The final Let us sleep now, repeated by the soloists, was enveloped in the embrace of In paradisum from the Youth Choir and eventually by the whole chorus.

Simon Halsey insists the CBSO Chorus is the best choir in the world, and although there must be other contenders for the title, they certainly turned in an excellent performance this evening – as did the CBSO and Andris Nelsons who is now confirmed as one of the brightest stars in the musical firmament. But I single out for particular praise the two male soloists. I have always been impressed by Mark Padmore’s musical sensitivity and his feeling for the words he sings with such clarity and meaning. But now he has a rival: Hanno Müller-Brachmann!

This performance was clearly a deeply moving experience, even for those who do not subscribe to Britten’s pacifist views. The capacity audience listened attentively for the 90 minutes or so of the performance and paused for a minute or more at the end before showing their appreciation. Dresden, Paris and Hanover definitely have something to look forward to.

Roger Jones