The pity of war: Kent Nagano’s shattering War Requiem in Zurich  

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Britten, War Requiem: Georgia Jarman (soprano), Ian Bostridge (tenor), Russell Braun (baritone), Zürcher Sing-Akademie (chorus master: Florian Helgath), Zürcher Sängerknaben (chorus masters: Konrad von Aarburg & Alphons von Aarburg), Tonhalle Orchestra / Kent Nagano (conductor). Tonhalle, Zurich 7.10.2021. (JR)

Kent Nagano (c) Antoine Saito

Britten: War Requiem, Op.66

The last time I heard this piece in Zurich was with Charles Dutoit, not – I seem to recall – an entirely satisfying performance. This time round, a concert delayed by COVID, Kent Nagano was in charge and the concert was simply in a different league.

Nagano and his soloists stressed the pitiful side of war with every breath and phrase of this most moving work. The drums and bugle calls evoked the grisly machinery of battle, and the effect on the Swiss audience was palpable. Even though, thankfully, Switzerland was spared the horrors of the trenches and of bombings, many in the audience had memories of the appalling loss of life, the Holocaust and the devastation of so many cities. I suspect there were a few moist eyes. No other work in the entire repertoire has, I venture to suggest, nearly the same effect.

It helps to have the finest soloists. Ian Bostridge needs no introduction. A frequent performer all over Switzerland, Bostridge has sung the War Requiem with Antonio Pappano (alongside Simon Keenlyside) and Gianandrea Noseda (alongside Thomas Hampson). Bostridge reveres both Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and claims (in an interview) to actually prefer the sound of the baritone to that of the tenor, whose voice must be lean and athletic, rather than rich and sonorous. He dismisses suggestions that he is an intellectual tenor, despite having been a Don at Oxford. He says, at 56, he is sadly now not young enough to sing Tamino but hopes to be able to sing Britten into his old age. Will he get the chance to sing Peter Grimes, one asks? Bostridge’s plangent tenor was ideal for the soldier facing death in the muddy trenches of the Somme; his diction, alliteration, intonation and projection exemplary, the anger of the young artilleryman struck at the heart of the audience.

Baritone Russell Braun is part Canadian, part German, so the almost ideal German soldier in the War Requiem. I think I prefer the part sung with a German accent, which brings home the message more clearly, but one gains with the improved English pronunciation, even if with a faint Canadian twang. Braun had plenty of volume and emotion, and he was the perfect counterpart to Bostridge.

Catherine Naglestad was originally billed for the soprano part, but instead American soprano Georgia Jarman stepped in. Jarman took a few moments to warm up, but then, placed high and to the side of the hall – in the dress of a winged angel – soared above everyone. Not as steely as a Galina Vishnevskaya, but a sweeter tone, occasionally lacking the necessary volume.

The boys’ choir in the War Requiem plays an important part and the placing of the choir is often a quandary for the conductor. In London’s Royal Albert Hall, they can be placed on the top gallery, in the nearby Royal Festival Hall they can be made invisible behind a screen to the side of the stage, but the Tonhalle in Zurich offers no such options. The heavenly angels (in Zurich, in incongruous sailor suits) just have to be visible at the side of the stage and therefore slightly more audible than often the case. They sang very well (I sang this many times as a boy with the Highgate School Boys’ Choir) and know the part backwards.

The chamber orchestra, ably led by Peter McGuire (a very welcome returnee from Minnesota) was splendid and deservedly gained much foot stamping from their colleagues. The main orchestra knew the work well and all sections impressed. The use of huge real church bells had the desired effect.

The Zürcher Sing-Akademie, their numbers swelled by some additional singers, were on top form; the pianissimi were most affecting, and their long-held notes were breath-taking (in all senses). The Dies Irae sections were thrilling and had (just) enough volume to ride the orchestra at full pelt. Nagano built up the tension into its final, shattering fury, ably aided by the Tonhalle’s new and mighty organ.

So do I have any quibbles? Yes, with the audience. My elderly neighbour, probably dragged to the concert by his long-suffering wife, decided to open his wrapped tin of sweets – with a penknife – just as the repose of this War Requiem started; he could not bring himself to applaud at the end. Some coughers are also back, though still masked at least for the moment. Have people forgotten how to behave at concerts? Last week, staggeringly, a new (clearly untrained) usher opened a side door during a movement and marched through the hall with some latecomers to show them their seats.

Even though programmes were free and plentiful, most of the (Swiss) concertgoers were simply content to let Britten’s soundworld wash over them, but that was to miss the many messages in the text, which Britten had worked so hard to assemble. They would have had trouble understanding the pathos of the young soldiers, the sad beauty of Wilfred Owen’s poetry, and the references to mass killing and genocide in Britten’s variation of the Abraham and Isaac story. The poet’s task was to warn and the audience’s task – in a work still, surprisingly, new to many on this side of the Channel – was to pay attention, get the message and heed the warning.

John Rhodes

1 thought on “The pity of war: Kent Nagano’s shattering <i>War Requiem</i> in Zurich  ”

  1. Like you, I sang the work (alongside you with the Gemischter Chor Zurich) before I heard it in concert. The most memorable was in 2013 at the KKL with Mariss Jansons conducting the Bayerischer Rundfunk orchestra and chorus. Emily Magee sang a fine performance, but Mark Padmore and Christian Gerhaher were unforgettable. It’s a performance that I will carry with me always. And I am sad to report that audience deportment is no better in NYC. Rick


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