Dutoit Offers Moving, Persuasive War Requiem

United KingdomUnited Kingdom: Tatiana Pavlovskaya (soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Matthias Goerne (baritone), Chicago Symphony Chorus Duain Wolfe (chorus director), Chicago Children’s Chorus, Josephine Lee (artistic director), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (conductor), Symphony Center, Chicago, 16.11.2013 (JLZ).


Britten: War Requiem, Op. 66

In honor of the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth (on 22 November), Charles Dutoit and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave the War Requiem a moving reading, persuasive from the first beat to the silence after the final one.

Dutoit never lost sight of the larger structure, brought out details that underscored the text, and kept the orchestra nicely in balance, allowing Britten’s colors to be heard clearly. The strings were particularly strong, and the brass had an impressive burnished sound. All this may be in part the result of the seating, which diverged from the CSO’s usual plan, putting most of  the strings together on the left side of the stage, with the woodwinds on the right and toward the front, and the brass in the back—the latter made the first movement fanfares very effective.

In the Dies irae—and similarly in the delicate sonorities in the Libera me—Dutoit elicited rich timbres that never became strident or garish. His tempos supported both the text and the musical line, with no passage sounding out of place.

Tenor John Mark Ainsley was outstanding and delivered his lines exquisitely, effortlessly, giving Rupert Owen’s text nuance and shape. In his opening, “What passing bells,” his diction allowed the poetic meter to emerge easily. He was similarly powerful in the Agnus Dei, shaping his delivery to convey Owen’s elegiac words. If at times Russian soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya was not entirely idiomatic in her Latin pronunciation, her approach to the music was impassioned—especially evident in her solos in the Dies irae, along with the passages in the Libera me. Making her debut in this demanding piece, Pavlovskaya demonstrated she has a powerful instrument.

Baritone Matthias Goerne gave a similarly ardent performance, using gestures to support the text in the Offertorium’s  “So Abram rose,” where Owen retells the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac as a metaphor for those killed in battle. Goerne emoted more passionately in the Sanctus, in which he brought out the text’s apocalyptic character (“After the blast of lightning”). At times, though, the diction lacked the rhythm of an English native speaker. Yet such considerations faded in the final Libera me, culminating in “I am the enemy you killed,” leading to the repeated line, “Let us sleep now.” As Ainley and Goerne gently uttered this phrase, their overlapping entrances resolved in the choral texture of “In paradisum.” Here the chorus sounded stunning, with the tuning and voicing of the final passage ringing so clearly that it was possible to hear the overtones in the scoring.

Rather than relying on any single element, the result was the seamless collaboration creating a fitting celebration of Britten’s centenary that will be remembered for years.  The silence that accompanied the conclusion was testimony to that.

James L. Zychowicz

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