Bychkov Leads an Unforgettable War Requiem

United StatesUnited States  Britten, War Requiem: Christine Brewer (soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), San Francisco Symphony, Pacific Boychoir, Kevin Fox (director), San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Ragnar Bohlin (director), Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 27.11.2013 (HS)

Although performances of Britten’s monumental War Requiem crop up in the United Kingdom often this time year, usually around Remembrance Day, it’s hard to figure why at least two major American orchestras performed it this week, around our Thanksgiving, a holiday free of military overtones. Chicago Symphony did it, and San Francisco Symphony presented it Wednesday, the night before Thanksgiving, with a second performance slated for Saturday. Semyon Bychkov conducted, fresh from what was reportedly an astounding performance on Remembrance Day (November 11, the day we call Veteran’s Day in the United States) in London’s Royal Albert Hall.

It may not have been Remembrance Day here but Bychkov’s San Francisco offering of this work should long be remembered. Elegantly shaped, scrupulously detailed, powerfully paced, alternately languid and propulsive, fervent and pragmatic—Bychkov made this an unforgettable Event with a capital E. It felt as if every participant were in the moment, on the same page (whatever cliché you want to employ), in service of bringing this score fully to life. Its message of noble pacifism, achieved through interpolating the English-language war poems of Wilfred Owen (himself gunned down in the final days of World War I) with the Latin requiem mass, with Britten’s own pacifism expressed through haunting music.

It all came through vividly, starting with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, which produced an extraordinary range of colors and sounds. They brought delicacy and bounce to unexpected staccatos in the Dies irae, muscled up for a powerful climax at the beginning of the final Libera me, and brought the proceedings to a barely audible yet resonant finish. If their articulation of the text sometimes lacked the precision we usually hear, their evocation of feelings in sound was unmistakable.

The male soloists, both English-born-and-raised, brought eloquence of phrasing and pure sound to Owen’s remarkable poems. Tenor James Gilchrist’s sweet lyric sound was especially entrancing in “Move him into the sun,” in which a soldier wants to carry his dead comrade into the light in hopes it will bring him back to life. By refraining from over-emoting, his underplayed desperation contrasted effectively with the chorus’ Lachrymosa sung against it. Baritone Roderick Williams’s lattè-smooth timbre made up for a lack of heft with remarkable fluidity and attention to text. His matter-of-fact approach in Owen’s telling of the Isaac sacrifice, the ending altered so that Isaac is slaughtered instead of the ram, was especially poignant.

An 11-piece orchestra within the orchestra, here organized separately stage right, accompanies the tenor and baritone segments. Not only does this allow for lighter voices to be more effective, it frames these English-language interpolations with a different orchestral color. Oboist Russ deLuna made especially fine contributions in this ensemble, led by concertmaster Alexander Barantschik. The moments when the two voices came together, especially the overlapping phrases at the very end, were most affecting.

Soprano Christine Brewer, positioned at the back of the orchestra, just below the chorus, gave us the voice of an angel, and I mean a real biblical angel. There was purity and clarity in softly floated passages, but the more emphatic moments had a sense of danger and raw terror that served the music well.

The clear voices of the Pacific Boychoir, positioned offstage, wafted through. Although it was effective dramatically, positioning them somewhere in the hall might have made their contributions more distinct.

Bychkov pulled all these elements together seamlessly, lingering over every telling detail without losing pace. The timbre of the chorus, the balances within the orchestra, even the silences between movements, each contributed to perfectly judged musical clarity. The change in mood to the hosannas of an almost (but not quite) joyful Sanctus was like the sun barely peeking out on a cloudy day, only to recede into a shuddering gloom underlining the hopeful text of Agnus dei.

Of special note was the trajectory of the long and winding Dies irae section, each interjection of the nervous brass fanfares arriving with a different color, the staccato utterances of the chorus perfectly poised between precision and reverberant sound. The disquieting accompaniment to the baritone’s “Bugles sang” led inexorably to a heartfelt Liber scriptus and the contrast of the soprano’s first appearance. The segue into a bitter march recalled Mahler, and the explosion of the chorus after Owen’s “Sonnet—On Seeing A Piece of Our Artillery Brought Into Action” was stunning, all of it collapsing into near silence and deft interjections in “Move him into the sun.”

Perhaps the proximity to Thanksgiving was a subtle message of gratitude to those men and women who put their lives on the line in war for the rest of us (whether all of us want them to, or not), even as Britten’s music and Owen’s texts underline the brutal realities of it all. The War Requiem does this with much beauty, and such an expressive performance felt exactly right on the eve of this holiday. Bychkov gracefully brought his fingers together to draw delicate refinement in the final fadeout, held his hands in place for a few seconds and slowly brought them down to utter silence. That said everything. The ovation that followed was well deserved.

Harvey Steiman

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