The first performance of Britten’s War Requiem was certainly one of the most extraordinary musical events in the 20thc. Never in my lifetime has a new work received such acclaim. It sold over a 100,000 LP’s worldwide when it was recorded , a number unheard of for a classical disc. Of course, such popularity brought its inevitable number of nay sayers ,who assume that popular taste must be one that is debased, chief amongst them being Igor Stravinsky , never noted for his generosity to a fellow composer, and a distinguished American critic who declared the work to be in the last resort ‘superficial’. Well, here we are in the 21st century and to judge by the frequency of the work’s performances around the globe the public’s initial opinion has been vindicated, that the War Requiem is a gold plated masterpiece of the choral repertoire.
However, it is a devil of a piece to deliver. There are first of all the problems of balance between the main and the chamber orchestras and between the main choir and that of the choristers. The musical demands , the spotlighting at times of all participants, particularly the soloists where the males in particular are singing a song cycle in the middle of a Mass, are relentless. On occasions some problems are insoluble. I have heard the work done at least twice in London’s Festival Hall where the dry acoustics nullified some of the most striking features of the work. It was after all written for a cathedral and its spaces. In London perhaps the best venue in my experience was the dear old Royal Albert Hall but of all the concert halls Symphony Hall in Birmingham did just fine a few years ago in a performance under Andris Nelsons.
All the above might explain why I approached this performance with a degree of trepidation. Common to all the performances I had heard previously were top of the range singers, choirs and orchestras. In addition the level of expectation associated with this performance was unique. Here it was to be done on the day before the 100th. anniversary of the end of the Great War and, as if that was not enough, a week after Wilfred Owen’s own death on the battlefield a century ago. What a wonderfully moving touch it was for The Times to publish last week an obituary a 100 years on to a poet who was at the time of his death virtually unknown. With all that, how likely, I wondered, was it that soloists relatively early in their careers , three choirs of a provincial city, a largely amateur orchestra and a conductor directing the work for the first time would collectively be able to deliver the goods.
Well, they could and they did. Of course, not everything resulted in complete satisfaction. Of the soloists, soprano Ilona Domnich, singing the more conventional part of the Mass itself, made perhaps the greatest impression with a glorious voice sailing above the orchestra on occasions. As regards tenor Mark Milhofer and baritone Malachy Frame tackling the Owen settings, both clearly have fine voices which were used here with considerable refinement. Ideally at times I wanted something a bit rougher, more dramatic. For example, in The Next War the forced trench jollity wasn’t quite communicated. Also, I felt that a relatively light baritone was not an ideal voice for one or two of the settings, notably Britten’s devastating delivery of the poem describing a big gun being brought into action. The final line ‘May God curse thee and cut thee from our soul !’ ideally does need a weight and darkness of timbre. However, conversely the likeness of voices did make the ‘Strange Meeting’ of the two opposing soldiers perhaps even more poignant in that it drove home the bond between the two that leads to the benediction of the work’s closing moments.
The local choirs rose to the challenges splendidly. Unsurprisingly in such a huge work not everything was ideal. The problem of the positioning off stage of the choristers was not entirely solved. They were ethereal to the point of disappearance if one was seated stage right whereas I was assured by one person they were splendid for those sitting stage left. In the main choirs there could at times have been rather more projection in some of the intense quiet moments of the score. The start to the Libera Me was one such moment but here and elsewhere, as in the Dies Irae, waves of full throated sound eventually drove everything before it to magnificent effect. Overall, though, what was so moving was the obvious commitment of every member of each choir to strain themselves to the very utmost of their capacity and therefore time and again the essence of the work was communicated . That in itself made for an especially moving occasion.
And as for the orchestras, well, they were simply magnificent. One aspect of Britten’s genius is his ability to conjure up the most atmospheric of sound worlds from small bands and nowhere is this better shown than in this work in the chamber orchestra’s accompaniments to the Owen poems. The drawback for the instrumentalists is their exposure! Suffice to say that time and again they fully supported the singers in establishing the wonderfully precise and evocative musical setting of each poem. Has any music ever been written that is more likely to produce tears than the setting of one of Owen’s very greatest poems, ‘At a Calvary near the Ancre’, or the ending of the work with, in the Libera Me, the ghostly dream Purgatory of ‘Strange Meeting’? Here the orchestral accompaniment was simply superb in creating Britten’s and Owen’s vision. Lastly, it must be said that as far as the main orchestra was concerned there were just too many fine moments to record but perhaps the palm goes to the brass who displayed, for example, a wonderful punch to the Dies irae.
Finally, there was the conductor, Claus Efland. This may have been his first performance of the work but he gave the impression of having a clear vision with everything at his finger tips, which obviously gave to all the security needed to ascend this Everest of music. Hence, he and all who took part were able to make this a truly memorable evening of remembrance and contemplation. At the end the silence was palpable and then all received the ovation they had truly deserved.