RSNO Reveal Britten’s Humanity in War Requiem

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, War Requiem: EvelinaDobračeva (soprano), Jeffrey Francis (tenor), Russell Braun (baritone), RSNO Chorus & Junior Chorus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 15.11.2013 (SRT)

The world is rich with War Requiems in Britten’s centenary year and this is Scotland’s contribution.  The RSNO have excellent form in this work, and happily the high standards they set in their 2010 performance under their former music director were continued in this performance under their current one.

This orchestra, whose colour and flair were so honed under Denève, are now a notably more clipped, precise outfit under Oundjian, and putting these two qualities together makes them pretty near ideal performers of the War Requiem.  The large scale of the playing is magnificent in the great climaxes, such as start of the Dies Irae or the Libera me, and the opening derived its impact from a dark, almost insidious approach.  The playing of the chamber ensemble was particularly impressive, however; thrillingly virtuosic in Britten’s intimate writing but full of feeling and colour too.  To pick out only two examples, the way the solo strings leaned into the silences at “I am the enemy you killed” was remarkable, as was the array of percussion deployed, seemingly simultaneously, during the Abraham and Isaac scene (hats off to John Poulter).

The singing of the chorus was remarkably good, better than anything I’ve heard them in for a long time, partly due to the conviction and subtlety of the notes but also thanks to the admirable precision of their diction.  I particularly loved the the children’s chorus, singing invisibly behind the audience, high up in the foyer.  They floated in with ethereal beauty, particularly in the final pages, but also conveyed an eerie sense of threat, most especially in the Offertorio.

EvelinaDobračeva, standing in for an indisposed Susan Graham, was the finest of the three soloists, cutting through the vast choral/orchestral texture with laser-like clarity and Slavonic richness that puts you in mind of Vishnevskaya or Netrebko.  Russell Braun was also a deeply sympathetic presence, especially moving in After the blast of lightning.  Jeffrey Francis sounded uncomfortable, however, especially in the quiet or high passages, and he never seemed as fully inside his part as the others did.  Still, that didn’t detract from a triumphant evening that reminded me all over again of Britten’s poetry and profound humanity.

Simon Thompson

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