Famous for his operas, Benjamin Britten had been planning something new for some time when he was invited in 1958 to compose a work to celebrate the rebuilding of the bombed Coventry Cathedral. The composer saw the resulting War Requiem as a force for unification, choosing his three soloists from the UK, USSR and Germany, the countries he believed to have suffered the most during World War Two. The work also unites the sacred and the secular; although it takes the form of a traditional Requiem, the music is interspersed with the words of First World War poet Wilfred Owen. The piece remains as powerful today as it was at its 1962 premiere: the sheer number of musicians involved hints at the monumental nature of the work. Last night the LSO were joined by a smaller chamber orchestra, the London Symphony Chorus and the treble choir from Eltham College, in addition to three soloists and the energetic Gianandrea Noseda on the rostrum.
The piece begins with the Chorus intoning the ‘Requiem aeternam’, accompanied by the solemn tolling of bells. This quiet opening revealed the polish of the well-rehearsed Chorus, whose energy and clarity were to remain all evening despite some very challenging music. Although there was the occasional disagreement over the precise time to make an entry, the Chorus were particularly impressive at the ends of long phrases, where their controlled fading away revealed Britten’s intentions in all their glorious harmony. In contrast to the enormity of the Chorus sound was that of the boys’ choir, whose well-blended and pure sound was present at many of the most moving parts of the piece.
Both groups were guided expertly by Noseda, who used his superbly clear technique to demand brisk tempi from his massed forces whilst always managing to convey real passion for the music. The exuberant ‘Sanctus’ was taken at the ideal tempo, flaunting the LSO’s blistering brass section whilst ensuring that the Chorus never lagged behind. As well as making huge demands of any conductor, the Requiem also challenges every section of the orchestra, from fiendishly difficult wind solos to the difficulty of not overshadowing the singers with over-enthusiastic string playing. The orchestra reacted with enthusiasm to Noseda’s every suggestion, daring him to push the tempi further and playing with awesome fury in the apocalyptic moments of the work. The Chamber Orchestra, made up of LSO Principals, really shone in their accompaniment of the three soloists, despite the very great difficulties created by long breaks in playing. This was a great chance to see these excellent orchestral musicians in a challenging chamber situation; it was only a pity that the Barbican’s staging did not allow them a more separate stance from the main body of the orchestra.
Soloists Ian Bostridge and Simon Keenlyside enjoyed a more prominent position at the very front of the stage, allowing them to sing with expression without the risk of losing the sound. Britten’s beautiful yet bitingly acerbic tale of Abraham and Isaac demonstrated the best of both singers, who negotiated the bare harmonic writing wonderfully. Bostridge was by far the more expressive of the two, although there was the odd moment of off-key wandering. As is traditional, soprano Sabina Cvilak was positioned high above the orchestra with the Chorus: the increased distance did not prevent a powerful performance. The writing of the soprano part is exceptionally beautiful; her rendition of the ‘Lacrimosa’, soaring of the laments of the Chorus, was particularly memorable.
The War Requiem celebrates its half centenary in 2012; there will be plenty of chances to hear Britten’s pacifist comment on the horrors of war in the next year. Noseda and the LSO have set a very high benchmark indeed with this daring performance.