A truly unforgettable performance of Britten’s War Requiem at Musikfest Berlin

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin [5] – Britten’s War Requiem, Op.66: Flurina Stucki (soprano), Matthew Newlin (tenor), Markus Brück (baritone), Chorus and Children’s Choir of the Deutsche Oper Berlin / Sir Donald Runnicles (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 10.9.2021. (CC)

Britten’s War Requiem at Berlin’s Philharmonie (c) Martina Hafner/B.Z.

The eve of 20 years since the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York brought with it an unforgettable performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, a piece itself written for the rededication of Coventry Cathedral in 1962 after its 1940 bombing by the Luftwaffe. That first performance featured an international line-up of soloists; here, the choice of American and German soloists seemed particularly poignant.

The chorus director here was Jeremy Bines, ex-Glyndebourne; this is the first time the chorus of the Deutsche Oper had performed in its entirety since 6 March 2020. The War Requiem is an astonishing juxtaposition of the ancient Latin texts of the Requiem with war poetry in English. The two sit in symbiotic relationship, the one illuminating the other. Although not even semi-staged, this was a performance that included elements of spatial drama: the placing of the soprano soloist, Flurina Stucki, centrally and behind the orchestra; the arrangement of the two choruses (adult and children), plus their actual placement (at times, as at the beginning, the children turned side-on to the audience to sing). But the real drama came from the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, the unforgettable sounds of those choirs and the commanding conducting of Sir Donald Runnicles himself; and there is implicit sense of narrative exchange between the full orchestra and the chamber orchestra (the two gentleman soloists rightly placed in its proximity, at the front of the stage). Certainly, this element was a far cry from the full staging at English National Opera in November 2018; but no less effective.

The soloists were uniformly excellent. It is the tenor that starts, Matthew Newlin supremely strong and dramatic in his ’What passing bells’ (Wilfred Owen, from Anthem for Doomed Youth); and how touching was his rich-toned delivery of ‘Move him unto the sun’ (the opening of Owens’s poem Futility) and, much later, his plaintive ‘It seemed that out of battle I escaped’ (from the ‘Libera me’). Interesting how the baritone’s ‘Bugles sang’, tenderly delivered by Markus Brück (superb vocal legato) seemed to reach back in time almost 20 years to Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Brück had the vocal heft, too, for ‘Be slowly lifted up’ (from the ‘Dies Irae’). The positioning together of the two gentleman soloists at the front befitted the many passages in which they sing together (Owens’s ‘Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death’ particularly memorable, as was their final statement of the concluding ‘Libera me’ [‘Let us sleep now’]).

Soprano Flurina Stucki was radiant (and strong) in the ‘Liber scriptus’ – no surprise to learn she will sing in the Deutsche Oper’s upcoming Ring (Freia in Das Rheingold and Helmwige in Die Walküre). Her ‘Sanctus’, encrusted with chimes, was no less glowing, but it was her ‘Lacrimosa’, perfectly judged both vocally and emotionally, that left the most lasting memory.

One has to admire the discipline of the choruses. The childrens’ choir sang with astonishing discipline against the celestial organ in the ‘Oratorium’, while the sheer vigour of the choral ‘Quam olim Abrahae,’ coupled with a light agility, was utterly remarkable; and how that contrasted with the later tormented chorus of ‘Libera me, Domine’

The brass department has a particularly demanding time of it in the ‘Dies Irae’ (unsurprisingly, given the text); and how superbly they delivered, their gestures interrupting the powerfully rhythmic ‘Dies irae’ text itself. The sheer heft of the choral and instrumental sound around the ‘Tuba mirum’ was staggering (and what an acoustic from the Philharmonie – every detail was audible). But the subtleties were perhaps even more memorable: the frozen stasis, the perfectly judged trills around the tenor’s ‘Think how it wakes the seeds’ from the ‘Dies irae’, or the infinite beauties of the 13-strong chamber orchestra.

A truly unforgettable performance.

Colin Clarke

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