War Requiem Movingly Marks the Britten Centenary in Gloucester

Rasch, Britten. Alwyn Mellor (soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor), Stephan Loges (bass-baritone), Gloucester Choral Society,  Bristol Choral Society, Gloucester Cathedral Choristers,  Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Adrian Partington (conductor). Gloucester Cathedral, 16.11.2013 (JQ)

Torsten Rasch (b. 1965) – Here Dead We Lie
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) – War Requiem, Op. 66

The centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten has engendered an upsurge of interest among the record companies in War Requiem. In the last couple of months I’ve reviewed no less than five newly-issued recordings, conducted by Paul McCreesh, Sir Antonio Pappano, Mariss Jansons, Karel Ančerl  and, most fascinating of all,  the BBC broadcast of the very first performance in Coventry Cathedral, which has just been released on CD for the first time. It’s been exciting and moving to hear all these recorded performances, all of which have had much to say about the work, but there’s no substitute for experiencing War Requiem live.

Before we heard War Requiem the Cathedral choristers, positioned up in the organ loft on top of the rood screen, sang the short anthem, Here Dead We Lie by Torsten Rasch. This is a setting of some lines by A. E. Housman. I’d heard the music before because Rasch re-worked it into a set of four songs that Roderick Williams performed at this year’s Three Choirs Festival (review). I confess that I didn’t find those songs desperately appealing, despite the advocacy of Williams, though Here Dead We Lie impressed me the most. Here we heard it in its original version as an a cappella anthem. It’s a short piece, about three minutes in length, and here, sung confidently and from a distance by the young choristers, it made a good effect. Rightly, the audience was asked not to applaud. However, the time that it took Adrian Partington to make his way down from the organ loft to begin the Britten almost inevitably occasioned coughing and shuffling in the audience. It might have been better if someone else had conducted the Rasch, allowing only for a brief pause between the two works. Rasch is writing a much larger work, for chorus and orchestra, for the 2014 Three Choirs Festival and it will be interesting to hear him working on a larger canvass.

Adrian Partington, the Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral, is also the conductor of both Gloucester Choral Society and Bristol Choral Society; both choirs came together for this performance and combined in a chorus of over 250 singers. This super-choir made a very positive impression. Talking to a member of Gloucester Choral Society, an experienced singer, prior to the performance she told me that she had found the preparation of War Requiem the most challenging piece in her experience to date. That may be true of many of her colleagues also for the choral writing is not easy. However, the chorus sang with fine assurance and great commitment. Just occasionally I would have welcomed a bit more from them – ideally the ‘Confutatis’ needed a bit more bite from the men – but for the most part the singing was excellent. The full choir was incisive at the start of the Dies Irae. Later in this movement the ladies sang the ‘Recordare’ touchingly. There was some good chorus work in the Offertorium where both fugues on ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ were well done; the first traversal was spirited while its hushed reprise was delivered with excellent attention to dynamics. The choir gave all they had in the ‘Hosannas’ in the Sanctus though in the resonant acoustic they were somewhat swamped by the brass, and especially the suitably brazen horns. Finally, the chorus made a very fine contribution to the ‘Libera me’, not least in the radiant closing ensemble.

Special mention must be made of the Cathedral choristers whose singing throughout was incisive and accurate. The composer would have approved.

The soprano soloist, Alwyn Mellor, came with impressive operatic credentials, including an appearance as Brünnhilde in Seattle this summer where I see she impressed my colleague, Bernard Jacobsen (review). For this performance she was placed on the rood screen, next to the organ. It was therefore a challenge for her to project her voice over such a distance down the long nave of the cathedral. Miss Mellor had the necessary power to achieve this. I wasn’t totally convinced by her at first – starting ‘cold’ in the ‘Liber scriptus’ is a cruel challenge and I had the impression, perhaps wrongly, that she was singing fractionally more slowly than the conductor wanted. However, she warmed to her task and sang affectingly in the ‘Lacrymosa’, very strongly in the Sanctus and touchingly in the Benedictus.

The German baritone, Stephan Loges, made a strong impression. English may not be his first language but I had little trouble hearing his words even though my seat was over halfway down the nave. I appreciated the fine rounded tone and depth of expression that he deployed in ‘Bugles sang’ and he had the histrionic power for ‘Be slowly lifted up’, even though he cut short the extended high notes; the presence and bitterness demanded by this poem were strongly evident. He combined very well indeed with James Gilchrist in the Abraham and Isaac duet in the Offertorium and was very eloquent in ‘Strange meeting’.

In a distinguished performance Britten’s masterpiece the outstanding contribution was made by James Gilchrist. His vocal timbre is ideally suited to this music and he produced, it seemed, just the right vocal colour for every phrase he sang.  I heard him in this same work here in Gloucester Cathedral back in 2007 (review). I commented then that his identification with the words was complete. If anything, he was even more expressive here. I noted down several phrases that were voiced with an eloquence that was truly moving: a couple of examples must suffice. I was greatly moved by his singing of ‘Move him, move him into the sun’. The title of Owen’s poem is Futility and this was conveyed by Gilchrist’s wonderfully sensitive delivery of the words, not least the line ‘Was it for this the clay grew tall?’ His singing in the Agnus Dei was marvelously refined: there was gentle pathos to begin with but as the bitterness of the poem developed so did Gilchrist respond, hardening his tone appropriately. Fittingly, his artistry and his identification with words and music peaked for ‘Strange meeting’. He began in spellbinding stillness: I had the impression of a lone survivor from a nuclear holocaust. In the few moments it took him to sing his portion of Britten’s setting we were truly confronted by the harrowing message of War Requiem. After the intensity with which he and then Loges sang this poem, ‘Let us sleep now’ came as a beneficent release, as Britten surely intended.

Supporting all this fine singing was the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The cathedral acoustic prevented a good deal of orchestral detail from registering, though the brass and percussion made telling contributions. However, the chamber orchestra could be heard distinctly and the players made the most of Britten’s piquant scoring and gave excellent support to the two male soloists.

War Requiem presents a huge challenge to the conductor but Adrian Partington surmounted the challenge, not least because he clearly believes in the music. I felt his judgment of tempo was faultless throughout the performance. His direction was at all times clear and incisive and this meant that he was able to achieve a considerable amount of clarity despite the tricky resonant acoustic. In a fine and sensitive reading I especially admired his direction of the ‘Libera me’. The sepulchral percussion at the start gradually gathered momentum like a cumbersome tank or artillery piece lumbering forward. I thought he judged and managed the accelerando and crescendo through the following pages expertly and when, after the reprise of the Dies irae’, the great climax arrived it was absolutely shattering. Just recently I saw this passage memorably described as “a ‘mushroom cloud’ moment”: that’s just how it sounded here.

The previous night I’d attended a concert conducted by an internationally lauded maestro when, for all the brilliance of the playing, I felt the performance didn’t penetrate beneath the surface of the music. This account of War Requiem was very different; here one felt that the performers were digging deep, both musically and emotionally, and the effect was deeply moving. After a long silence that spoke volumes for the impact the music had had on the large audience there was a long and justly-deserved ovation. On one level that was entirely right, of course; such a fine performance had to be acknowledged. But you sensed also that the applause was a release of tension by the audience who had been gripped by the performance and, above all, by the eloquence of Britten’s music and the moving, unsettling message it conveys. Humbled, we left.

The same performers – with the choristers of Bristol Cathedral replacing their Gloucester colleagues – will perform the work again in Bristol on 23 November, one day after the actual centenary of Britten’s birth. Details here.

John Quinn

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