Archive for November 10, 2018

Britten: War Requiem

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I was back at the National Concert Hall in Dublin for an immensely powerful and moving performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. This vast work is composed for two orchestras (a standard symphony orchestra and a smaller chamber orchestra), two choirs (a chorus of adult voices and a boy’s choir) and three solo vocalists. Last night the soloists were Ailish Tynan (soprano), Gavan Ring (baritone) and Robin Tritschler (tenor), who performed with the combined forces of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, the RTÉ National Concert Orchestra, the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir and the boy Choristers of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, all conducted by David Brophy.

You can see the members of the Philharmonia Choir in position in the above photograph, which I took about ten minutes before the performance began; the choristers were out of sight in the gallery above and behind me, near where the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, was sitting.

The War Requiem was commissioned for the consecration in 1962 of the new Coventry Cathedral built to replace the 14th century cathedral that was destroyed along with most of the city in a devastating air raid ion 1940. It’s a remarkable work that juxtaposes settings of traditional liturgical Latin texts against poems by Wilfred Owen. The idea of doing this may have originated with the first poem Britten uses, Anthem for Doomed Youth, which itself deploys words associated with religious services to emphasize the soulless brutality of warfare:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

These settings are sung by soloists accompanied by the smaller chamber orchestra (positioned at the front of the stage) while the more traditional liturgical elements involve the larger forces arrayed behind.

I’ve known this work for many years largely through the classic 1963 recording conducted by Britten himself, with Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as soprano, tenor and baritone soloists respectively. I’m so familiar with that version that it was at first a little disconcerting to hear very different voices, but that very soon gave way into an appreciation of three very fine artists in their own right. All three were excellent last night, but I have to give extra special plaudits to Ailish Tynan, who sang with extraordinary passion in the Sanctus and Libera Me. The Latin text of the latter section includes:

Tremens factus sum ego, et timeo
dum discussio venerit, atque ventura ira.
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna.
Quando coeli movendi sunt i terra.
Dies illa, dies irae, calamitatis
et miseriae, dies magna et amara valde.
Libera me, Domine.

Ailish Tynan performed this not just as an evocation of the horrors of wars past but also with a sense of anguished foreboding about wars yet to come. It was deeply moving and clearly heartfelt. I found this from her on Twitter this morning:

The first few bars of the War Requiem are enough to tell you right from the start this is music is coming from the same imagination that gave us Peter Grimes and a host of other masterpieces, and the quality of the music is sustained throughout the 85 minutes or so of its duration. There are some wonderful touches in the orchestration, such as the Dies Irae (with a definite nod in the direction of Verdi, but with tricky 7/8 rhythms). The Boys Choir was also used extremely effectively, the fact that they could not be seen (at least by me) adding to the ethereal quality of their voices. In all, it added up to an intense experience, I think for the musicians as well as the audience.

At the end of the music, David Brophy kept his arms (and baton) extended for a considerable time before gradually lowering them to signal the end of the performance. I really appreciated that several seconds of silence, which was immaculately observed by the audience. It’s good to have a time to reflect on what you’ve just heard before the applause begins. When the ovation had died down, the elderly lady sitting next to me (whom I’d never met before) turned to me and said `Wasn’t that wonderful?’. It was only then that I realised how powerfully I’d been affected. I tried to answer, but found I was a bit choked, and all I could get out was “Yes, it was”. I hope that didn’t come across as rude. It’s just that sometimes music expresses things that words can’t convey. Actually, come to think of it, that’s what it’s for.

Anyway, you don’t need to take my word for how good a concert it was, because you can watch the whole thing here:

(Please note that there are quite a few minutes of blank screen before it starts, but it is there!)

Congratulations to all the musicians involved last night for a tremendous performance, and thank you for a wonderful experience. It was a privilege to be there.