Britten’s War Requiem from BBC NOW for Centenary of 1918 Armistice

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten: Emma Bell (soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor), Roman Trekel (baritone), Gloucester Cathedral Boy Choristers, Nia Llewellyn (conductor), Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama Choir, BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales / Mark Wigglesworth (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 11.11.2018. (PCG)

BrittenWar Requiem, Op.66

A performance of Britten’s War Requiem on the hundredth anniversary of the armistice which brought the First World War to its end was always going to be something very special indeed, a performance whose symbolic significance would place it far beyond the usual field of musical criticism. Indeed the work itself has long achieved an iconic status which ensures that any performance of more than adequate standard cannot fail to make an earth-shattering effect on its audience. The fact that this centenary commemoration so triumphantly succeeded is nonetheless a cause for additional rejoicing. The score, with its triple layers of onstage chorus and orchestra, supplementary chamber orchestra with its two vocal soloists, and offstage children’s choir and organ, presents an organisational challenge to any concert hall. Here, the BBC forces (supplemented by choral assistance from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and Gloucester Cathedral) arranged their forces in such a manner as to ensure maximum clarity and audibility of each element in the whole.

Following its première in the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962, the War Requiem rapidly established its unassailable reputation as a depiction of the pity and horror of war (and also as Britten’s most magnificent creative work). That was largely the result of John Culshaw’s superlative Decca recording, which was how most of us came to know and love the score during the 1960s, and which still has a quite unique power and force even now when later recordings have brought even greater accuracy and detail to our attention. But even then, there were some cavils from the more ‘progressively minded’ critics. One I recall came from those who complained that some passages – such as the opening of the Sanctus – were imitations of Stravinsky. Well, even if there are echoes (and they are fairly distant), it seems to me that Britten’s use of vocal melismata and tuned percussion has a sense of wild ecstasy which far surpasses its supposed progenitor. Others, I recall, complained that Britten’s setting of the liturgical passages was less effective than the chillingly dramatic treatment of the Wilfred Owen poems. Well, as a purely personal reaction, I might possibly concede that the setting of the opening words of the Offertorium for the distant children’s choir is more perfunctory than many other composers have made of the same text. This, however, surely serves a dramatic purpose, thrusting forward to the real business of the movement where the liturgical reference to Abraham brings us to Owen’s bitter twist on the final words of the story, where the prophet refuses the command of God and instead kills his son, ‘and half the seed of Europe, one by one’. The return here of the distant children’s voices, then, assumes its rightful place as a futile attempt at consolation. No, I will contend firmly that this score is one of the greatest musical masterpieces of the twentieth century, a performance of which should leave no audience unmoved.

And that was certainly the case here. Mark Wigglesworth, with his wealth of operatic experience, gave us the drama with both barrels. Even from the groping string passages at the opening you could feel the sense of increasing tension; the slow harmonic resolution of the Kyrie eleison at the end of the movement brought a real tingle to the senses and a stillness in the hall during which one could have heard a pin drop. The explosions of the Dies irae were also dramatic in the extreme, and the transitions from full orchestra to chamber orchestra were managed with an ease which belied the problems that these had caused in early performances of the War Requiem (including its première). Again and again, Wigglesworth allowed time to stand still during moments of stasis: the sense of hopelessness which underlay the words ‘Was it for this the clay grew tall?’ were emphasised by a heart-breaking pause in which the non-existent answer was vainly sought. Even more so in the Abraham story where Isaac’s plaintive question ‘But where the lamb for this burnt offering?’ was succeeded by an extended silence before the grim tones of the bassoon and baritone destroyed any hope of salvation (even Britten himself did not manage this sense of menace in his recording). After the stunned close of the Sanctus and the almost pastoral wistfulness of the Agnus Dei (an ironic counterpoint to Owen’s viciously anti-clerical stance) the opening of the Libera me was almost inaudible, a mutter of distant gunfire which built inexorably over five minutes and more to the clangourous return of the Dies irae and then the final entry of the full organ with the horror of the battlefield brought to life before our eyes and ears. And of course the final ‘strange meeting’ of the two soldiers in the stricken silence of the aftermath – the one living, the other the man he killed earlier that day – had all the cold chill that Owen’s words required. Britten’s sure response to poetry is nowhere more evident than here, in his willingness to keep the music out of the way and let the words convey their message unaccompanied; but even here, the subtle inflections of the jabbing string crescendos were carefully modulated to underline the changing moods of the dialogue. This too was something very special indeed.

Of the three soloists, Emma Bell was a last-minute substitute for Susan Bullock, and a very effective one at that. She has all the sense of wild abandon that Galina Vishnevskaya brought to the Britten recording all those years ago, but at the same time a closer sense of vocal control which scythed through the massive sounds of chorus and orchestra with a heroic grandeur. It was an excellent idea to revert to Britten’s original specification of the roles of the two soldiers given to a British and a German singer; the symbolism is all the more poignant given the circumstances of this performance. Roman Trekel did not have quite the same sense of ease singing in English that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau once brought to the role – he sometimes distorted his vowel sounds in a manner which sent the audience in search of the printed text in the booklet – but his voice was always firm and precisely pitched; when it mattered – as in the phrase ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’ – his diction was impeccable. He blended well with Allan Clayton in their assumption of the role of the angel in the Abraham and Isaac story, always a difficult passage to bring off in performance. Allan Clayton himself was simply beyond criticism. With a voice that recalled Peter Pears (this is surely always going to be the case in Britten’s writing for the tenor voice) he surpassed that artist in his pointing of the text, and even more so in his willingness to live dangerously by the range of dynamic contrast he embraced, from a barely perceptible whisper to a full-throated howl of anguish. This was simply great singing by any standards, and in the context of this performance it was overwhelming.

The chorus, massively stretched across the back of the stage, was everything that one could wish for. The Gloucester boys, concealed behind the hall’s organ, were still clearly audible. The orchestral performance was absolutely impeccable. Those who find this incredible (given the difficulties experienced in many early performances), and who missed the live broadcast, are earnestly recommended to listen to the BBC iPlayer relay which I am pleased to report accurately reproduces the extreme lower dynamic range of the performance although the huge climaxes are somewhat compressed. Those who were able to get seats for this performance (and the hall was absolutely full) will have experienced one of the greatest of all emotional catharses.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

1 thought on “Britten’s <i>War Requiem</i> from BBC NOW for Centenary of 1918 Armistice”

  1. Well said Paul and congratulations on such a beautifully written review. It encapsulated everything I felt myself. This was one of the most moving and memorable evenings I have ever experienced at St David’s Hall (the upper tiers were sadly sparsely filled incidently) or anywhere else. Of the ten performances I have heard live this was in the top few – alongside Rostropovich (most special of all), Rattle, Pappano and Nelsons. Mark Wigglesworth was simply outstanding. If only the orchestra could get him back for a second term as their new chief conductor. He is a far greater musician now than he was back in the late nineties. Very unlikley I would think – he probably doesn’t tick enough BBC boxes for this day and age!


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