Morlot Crafts a Momentous Britten War Requiem

United StatesUnited States  Britten, War Requiem: Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Christine Brewer (soprano), Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor), Ivan Ludlow (baritone), Seattle Pro Musica (Karen P. Thomas, director), Northwest Boychoir and Seattle Symphony Chorale (Joseph Crnko, director), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 13.6.2013 (BJ)

Thinking back to many memorable concerts over the past eight years, I do not think I can recall experiencing so strong a sense of occasion as prevailed in Benaroya Hall when the Seattle Symphony presented its first performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in nearly fifty years. The event, aptly prefaced a few days earlier by a fine performance of the Cantata Misericordium by Freddie Coleman’s Seattle Choral Company, took its place among the year’s widespread celebrations of Britten’s centenary, and it made an ideal focus for the annual conference currently being held in the city by Chorus America.

How far is ambiguity, or ambivalence, a characteristic indicator of greatness in art? The unique design and content of the War Requiem forces that question on the listener’s attention. At least two of Britten’s operas, The Rape of Lucretia and Billy Budd, propound a decidedly Christian world-view—imposing it, moreover, on stories that you would hardly expect to provide fertile ground for Christian conclusions. Yet in what seems the more obviously devotional context of this Requiem, Christian content is presented cheek by jowl next to the First-War poet Wilfred Owen’s clearly disillusioned view of establishment ethics. It is for every listener to interpret the disjunction through the use of personal judgement.

The work itself is an artistic statement of a scope so ambitious and a character so profound that, as the London Times critic William Mann remarked after its premiere in 1962, “every performance it is given ought to be a momentous occasion.” Such, indeed, this performance conducted by Ludovic Morlot certainly was. Indeed, it was an interpretation of such triumphant splendor as to take me right back to the overwhelming impact the War Requiem had on me when I listened on the radio to its world premiere at the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral all of 51 years ago.

Maybe stellar names like those of some of the work’s earliest interpreters, such as Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, were missing from this performance’s list of soloists. No matter: all three soloists on this stage fashioned accounts of the utmost eloquence. Christine Brewer tackled the taxing solo soprano part with thrilling fearlessness and commanding voice, and won. Ivan Ludlow brought clear, warm tone and subtle expression to the baritone part. And in the work’s most intensely and memorably beautiful movement, the Agnus Dei, the only word that suffices to describe the effect of Anthony Dean Griffey’s inspired singing is “sublime.” There was, too, in his sheer relish of the text, a clarity and insight akin to the verbal acuity that Peter Pears, and more recently Ian Bostridge, have lavished on it.

In this movement, which alternates Owen with the liturgy in one of the work’s most pungently ironic juxtapositions, the delicately veiled sonority Morlot drew from chorus and orchestra provided a perfect backdrop for Griffey’s melting solo. Just as with the soloists, so with Joseph Crnko’s and Karen P. Thomas’s superb choruses, every word was clearly heard, at least where I was sitting, even without recourse to the printed text in the program book, which also contained an excellent program note and an informative essay on Wilfred Owen by Paul Schiavo.

With orchestral playing of such uniform brilliance and sensitivity as to render any singling out of individual contributions inappropriate, it was not surprising that a virtually sold-out house accorded the performance a fervent and unusually prolonged ovation. Unable to resist the temptation to return for the Saturday performance, I was every bit as moved as I had been on the Thursday. This was surely Morlot’s finest achievement since he took over as music director of the Seattle Symphony at the beginning of last season.


Bernard Jacobson

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.