‘…the work is so superbly proportioned and calculated, so humiliating and disturbing in effect, in fact so tremendous, that every performance it is given ought to be a momentous occasion.’ (published in The Times on 31 May 1962 after the world première in Coventry Cathedral)
Reading the words by the music critic of The Times after the world première is summing up the impressive proportions of the work and the high expectations the audience has every time it is performed live. It is demanding three exceptional soloists and in many ways any live performance has to fight past the wonderfully magnetic premiere recording by Britten himself holding the baton with Vilshnevskaya, Pears and Fischer-Dieskau. Of course it is interesting how this work written to celebrate the opening of Coventry Cathedral by Basil Spence (actually performed 5 days after the official opening/consecration) was to fall foul of cold war politics after the Soviet government did not allow Vilshnevskaya to take part in the first performance, Britten had to make do with Heather Harper. Ironically the three different nationalities of the soloists were meant to be emblematic of reconciliation but in reality it proved an unattainable target till the 1963 recording for Decca where the LSO is paired with Britten’s three ideal singers.
Having been all too familiar with the famous recording I had high expectations and a clear idea how difficult it must be to pull it off live. It was initially disappointing not to have Sir Colin Davis conduct it as originally advertised (amusingly Davis conducted Peter Racine Fricker’s The Golden Warrior two weeks after the first performance of Britten’s magnus opus, which was contributed by Sadler’s Wells to the arts festival for the opening of the cathedral) but Noseda was terrific as it happens!
Britten’s take on the standard Requiem is fascinating. He mixes the finite sounding Latin mass for the dead with Wilfred Owen’s war poetry in his goal to express his abhorrence for war and its consequences. The soprano is the only soloist singing in Latin providing a focus with her tutti with the choir. The tenor and baritone are involved in conversational passages and longer solos only accompanied by a small portion of the orchestra. The boys are accompanied by a bland organ accompaniment adding a certain English charm. What was very clear in the vocal writing for the tenor was how close in form it is to Oberon’s part in Midsummer night’s dream that he had completed two years before the Requiem. There’s a certain crystalline purity of line that is terribly alluring in the right hands.
The way the separate forces were distributed across the stage and the auditorium was a thoughtful touch and true to Britten’s instructions. The soprano was amidst the front row of the choir in the middle of the stage. The tenor and baritone were on the left of the conductor with the children’s choir and chamber organ tacked away at the back left of the Balcony. An interesting use of the acoustic was having the boys face to the side, thus their otherworldly, uninvolved with stage action, singing was hovering above our heads.
The true star of the evening was the London Symphony Chorus which uttered their opening phrases in Requiem aeternam with such subtlety and bitterness, instantly setting the tone for the whole evening. Britten wanted horror and creepiness from the chorus and he surely got that from the LSC. Their singing was attentive to the instructions of Noseda and had the required force and energy where required e.g. Dies irae.
Ian Bostridge has been a Britten specialist for most of his career and surely his engagement with the material was total. His opening solo was full of sensitivity and beautifully enunciated English as befitting the narration of Owen’s war poetry. He clearly engaged his whole body while singing, thrusting himself forward to reach the climactic moment in Agnus Dei. He was as wonderful to listen to as it was to look at.
Simon Keenlyside is a piece of butch baritonal hunkiness (as confirmed in the recent Pelleas) and he was excellent throughout but for me he lacked a little bit of idiomatic affinity with the piece. He was more Keenlyside than a German soldier in the mould of Fischer-Dieskau. Looking forward to change my mind, maybe, when I listen to the CD release of the concert. He just sounded a bit too heavy handed, at times verging into camp parody (especially in the Abraham passage).
Sabina Cvilac did a good job too, but seemed on the small size vocally to cut through the bells, trumpets and huge choir at times. Her tone was warm, but not as troubled sounding or commanding as Vishnevskaya’s. Someone with heavier artillery (terrible pun) would have given more punch to the Latin script and propelled it across the auditorium with more ferocity.
Britten’s complex textures with glistening strings and menacing percussion surely needs an orchestra at the top its game and the LSO once more impressed beyond measure. They were assured and well honed. Clearly in sync with Noseda (not a too frequent collaborator) and serving the music and their own world class reputation with aplomb. I am terribly happy that both performances were recorded to be preserved. The upcoming CD will hopefully transmit the excellent night we all had at the hall and how Britten’s shattering vision was brought to life and unfolded in front of us in 90 relentless minutes. It truly was a wonderful evening and with a piece that relays uncertainty and horror. A good match for the world we live in, torn by wars and on the edge of financial collapse.
Here’s an interesting photo gallery on the LSO’s Facebook account (look out for the stage plan!)
Here is the PDF of the programme