As the day drew to a close on yet another beautiful summer’s day, crowds gathered to hear one of Britten’s most haunting works: the War Requiem. Gathered in the majestic vault of Worcester Cathedral, the dwindling sun ignited the West Rose Window of this medieval jewel as all minds tripped back 100 years in commemoration of World War One and the subject of this most unique requiem.
The work, conducted by Peter Nardone, begins with an ethereal tolling of a tubular bell above the whispered Requiem aeternam of the Festival Chorus. Immediately, the audience is presented with the constant dichotomy that riddles the work as the dramatic intervals and fragments of the Philharmonia Orchestra are offset by the growing murmurs of the choir until a climax that could chill its audience to the bone.
Britten was renowned for being an advocate of the innocent and often used treble voices as symbols for innocence. In his War Requiem, a separate boys’ choir is used for off-stage ghostly voices singing of this lost innocence. The cathedral, adorned with screens, pinpointed this choir leaving little to the imagination which, I believe, minimised the eerie effect. However, the boys’ performance was spectacular throughout, with clear voices ringing through the air drawing another contrast between purity and sin before the arrival of the tenor solo. Soloist James Oxley filled the role with wonderful presence and the power of storytelling that brought a unique sense to each and every word.
The Dies irae is a summons to war, with bright fanfares and a marching rhythm that was executed by the cellos with a sense of bite that could have been matched a little more by the chorus. The firing guns were brilliantly depicted with authority by a strong percussion section whilst the violins and cellos drove the piece on with all the fury and foreboding of the “day of wrath”. The orchestra and chorus worked well together as a single unity to deliver a performance of dynamic contrast that made you feel as though you were getting closer and closer to the battle then back again, before the flute rises above the din like a bird fleeing battle.
Katherine Broderick stepped in for Susan Gritton, who was taken ill, and excelled in her performance. Although some of the lower notes were a little lost, the top of Broderick’s range was sublime as she commanded every ear in the building. The layered textures of the work gradually increased throughout the Recordare until the thundering return of the Dies irae. The dynamic intensity was truly astounding as a wall of sound resounded around the ancient stone of the Cathedral.
The Lacrimosa showcased a different side to the performance, a more reflective and lyrical response to the tragedy of war. Broderick played around with phrases, growing louder and falling back in a spellbinding way that was perfectly matched by the chorus and the clarinet that doubled the soloist with just enough of a voice to complement the performance. It was an expressive and moving section of the piece that ended with a hauntingly pure plea: Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem.
The Offertorium highlighted the lighter side of the performance with flowing contrapuntal passages that had a dance-like lilt pulsing through the section until its haunting conclusion with the tenor and baritone solos. Between murmurs of “one by one”, the boys’ choir sings of sacrifice before a long pause allowing us to reflect on the horrors of war.
As the Libera me hurtles towards a nod to Verdi’s Dies irae with shrieking scales, textured vocal lines and prominent piccolo, we finally find some form of peace. Oxley steps out of the silence in a final solo with Wilson- Johnson that drifts like a dream into the In Paridisum. As the two enemies join hands, they drift off into a peaceful rest that is guarded by the boys’ choir, the chorus and the soprano. As the texture grows line upon line in ascending scales, you can almost feel your heart lift and your soul sigh for that promised peace.
Nardone steered the ensemble so you could pick out every fragment, until we were suddenly brought back to life by the same tolling bell from the opening, before that whispered prayer: “May they rest in peace”- Britten’s closing tribute to all those men who lost their lives 100 years ago.
The lingering Amen poignantly acknowledges that the loss didn’t end in 1918, but continued through the years, through the Holocaust, the Blitz and the bombing of Coventry Cathedral that sparked this most thought-provoking work. As the sunlight burnt out to a bluish hue, nothing but silence filled Worcester Cathedral before the performance was met with the applause it deserved.