A Requiem Pitting Christian Devotion Against Anti-War Disillusion

United StatesUnited States Britten, War Requiem: Tatiana Pavlovskaya (soprano), Steve Davislim (tenor), Matthias Goerne (baritone), Westminster Symphonic Choir (Joe Miller, director), American Boychoir (Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, director), Philadelphia Orchestra / Charles Dutoit (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 25.3.2017. (BJ)

Britten’s War Requiem must surely be accounted the ultimate big public statement by a composer whose temperament led him most often—except where opera was concerned—in the direction of smaller, more intimate forms and genres. It was commissioned for an undeniably public occasion: the 1962 re-dedication of England’s Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed during World War II. Yet despite that context, as well as the sheer size of the performing forces involved and the 80-minutes-plus playing time, there is no lack of intimate elements dispersed among the work’s passages of overarching grandeur.

The intimacy derives from Britten’s inspired decision to interleave the large-scale expanses of the Latin mass of the dead—entrusted here to full chorus, orchestra, and solo soprano—with settings for tenor, baritone, and chamber orchestra of First-World-War poems by Wilfred Owen, who served in that conflict and was killed just a week before it ended.

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. For this Jewish agnostic critic, the philosophical slant of those works is decidedly repellent. In Budd, for example, we are asked to view Billy’s sufferings as acceptable because they lead to Captain Vere’s spiritual rebirth; and Lucretia’s rape similarly ends up being presented as if it could be justified in the light of Christian redemption. By contrast, it is Owen’s clearly disillusioned view of establishment ethics that for me provides the sympathetic aspect of the War Requiem’s text. And with all the magic that the liturgical sections often rise to, I find the composer’s deeply perceptive treatment of Owen’s verses even more compelling from the purely musical point of view.

Preceded locally by only one earlier Philadelphia Orchestra performance, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch in 1993, the performance now under review did full justice to almost every aspect of the work’s character. Conductor laureate Charles Dutoit paced the gradual ascent from mostly hushed choral dynamics toward soul-stirring climax with impressive restraint and skill, drawing a superb response from the excellent choral and orchestral forces assembled for the occasion, while Tatiana Pavlovskaya was fully equal, both technically and expressively, to the intensely rhetorical demands of the solo soprano part.

The chamber orchestral music was played with equal commitment, polish, and emotional intensity. Matthias Goerne is unmistakably a great singer endowed with a no less unmistakably great baritone voice, but I feel that it is not quite the right voice for the part it was presented with here: amply powerful though it is, Goerne’s is very much an inward voice, rather than the more forward kind of instrument deployed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who sang in the Coventry premiere that bowled me over when I listened to it on the radio all of 55 years ago. It was, therefore, the Australian tenor Steve Davislim that made the greater impact with his poised, vocally polished, and verbally meticulous delivery of Owen’s searing lines.

Bernard Jacobson

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