War Requiem Concert Review – Neil Crutchley

BARDI – WAR REQUIEM

 

Saturday 10th November 2018 saw many performances in England of Britten’s War Requiem, but I would doubt if any of them were more compelling or emotionally charged than Leicester’s, given by the Bardi Symphony Orchestra, the Leicester Philharmonic Choir, the Leicester Bach Choir, the Leicestershire Chorale and the choristers of Leicester Cathedral.

The fact that these are all local groups, performing to such a high standard, shows what can be done through commitment and dedication and makes one realise how fortunate we are in Leicester to have such talented musicians willing to expend time and effort to achieve such high standards.  It was a privilege to be in the De Montfort Hall for this performance. The simple, but beautiful effect of the two soldiers with heads bowed and guns lowered projected either side of the stage added to the poignancy of the occasion.

The War Requiem is one of Britten’s greatest creations. The remarkable and moving juxtaposition of the Latin Mass for the Dead with the disturbing and powerful poems of Wilfred Owen, creates a many-faceted, intensely emotional canvas that despite its complexity, speaks to the listener with a compelling and often heart-rending directness – and for me, this performance brought that home with resounding success. Yes, there may have been the occasional technical slip, but that can occur in the most “professional” of performances, but what this account under the Bardi’s Claus Efland had was an emotional power that went beyond the surface of the piece and at times had a searing intensity that took the breath away.

The work is fiendishly difficult to balance, having so many disparate sections. My only observation on that score would be that the choristers were a little too distant, having been consigned to an offstage corridor. Otherwise most of the balance problems seemed to have been solved. The choirs (trained by Tom Williams) were impressive in attack, rhythmic precision and dynamics – especially in the great climax of the Libera me, which was shattering in effect. But it wasn’t just the big climaxes that were effective, the singers were alert to the subtler aspects of Britten’s choral writing and the choristers, despite my reservation about their position, certainly achieved the required ethereal quality.

 

The standard of the playing in both orchestras was some of the best I’ve heard from the Bardi – and that’s saying something! All sections excelled themselves and the big moments had tremendous sweep and assurance. Both choirs and orchestras maintained a tension and accuracy that showed Claus Efland’s admirable technical control, confidence and intimate knowledge of the score – despite the fact that this was his first performance of the piece.

Soprano Ilona Domnich was assured and impassioned in her role in the Mass setting. She had no difficulty in soaring above the chorus whenever necessary.

The all-important male soloists were well-matched. Tenor Mark Milhofer was perhaps the more animated, but baritone Malachy Frame sang with precision and feeling but occasionally, as in the violent cursing of the great gun, at the close of the Sonnet on Seeing a Piece of our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action, he was rather overwhelmed by the chamber orchestra, but this is not the first time I’ve heard this happen. However his rendition of Bugles Sang was one of the most poignant and powerful I’ve heard, sensitively accompanied by the orchestra. Mark Milhofer showed a similar perception and passion in One ever Hangs and Move him into the Sun, which was heartbreaking in its sad intensity.

It is in these Owen settings that Britten shows his towering genius. Can anyone remain unmoved listening to So Abram Rose, with its devastating final lines and Strange Meeting; perhaps the most heart-rending of all – “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” – with its repeated line, “Let us sleep now.”? It was in these two unforgettable duet settings that the quality of the voices really showed, especially when they almost merge in the work’s closing pages.

I have no hesitation in saying that this was one of the best things the Bardi has done. It was a triumph of organization, presentation and interpretation. It packed an enormous emotional punch. The choice of date made it all the more telling – especially for those of us who had seen some of the recent TV programmes of archive footage of Great War veterans talking about their experiences and Sunday evening’s remarkable colour footage of life in the trenches.

The War Requiem is a great work of reconciliation – a cry for peace and a lament for the futility of war. It is as relevant in today’s world as it when it was written and when a century ago the “war to end all wars”, slew “half the seed of Europe, one by one”.