There does not need to be a special occasion for a requiem to be played. Certainly not for the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. In these unquiet times, it is always good to be reminded of the horrors of war as expressed in the strong anti-war message contained in this work. As it is, all of 2018 is a year of remembrance as the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1 is commemorated.

Ian Bostridge © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Ian Bostridge
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

This Requiem, one of the most important choral works of the 20th century, was written by Britten to celebrate the reconstruction of the bombed-out Coventry Cathedral and was premiered in 1962. There are various layers that make the work unique: the chorus, soprano and boys chorus sing the traditional Latin text of a Missa pro defunctis. They are interrupted by the tenor and baritone singing the texts of Wilfred Owen in English. Owen was a soldier and poet who fought in – and was killed – during the First World War, barely 25 years old. His words bring home the sights and sounds of war experienced first hand. Britten’s wish was to cast soloists from nationalities that had been enemies in war. In this particular performance, the composer’s intentions were honoured, with an English tenor, a German baritone and a Russian soprano.

From the initial choral pianissimo to the most bombastic notes with full battery of percussion instruments, the War Requiem cast a melancholy pall over its listeners, bringing them in touch with their innermost feelings. The chorus of 80, excellently prepared by Martin Wright, sounded at times disembodied, weightless, at other times cutting through the dissonant orchestration in such a way that the listener was shaken to the core.

Owen’s words evoked vivid images of death, the slender tenor of Ian Bostridge perfectly cast. He sounded plaintive, aggressive and cutting, sometimes spitting out the words with deep anger and sadness. He was answered by the gruff, earthbound voice of baritone Matthias Goerne, who grumbled about the same hopes and fears, even though he embodied the opposite side of the battle.

With his extensive experience as an opera conductor, Sir Antonio Pappano knows how to accentuate the innate drama of this work. By placing the boys chorus out of sight in the loft of the newly restored Unter den Linden, he assured their angelic quality. Anna Nechaeva sang from within the chorus, giving her, too, a heightened, removed position from where her clear and melodious soprano projected over the orchestration.

Pappano measured the score carefully, holding the Staatskapelle, the Staatsopernchor and the Kinderchor of the Staatsoper together and did not lose any of his troops in this mist-shrouded battlefield. But more than that, it was Pappano’s pacing and use of the transitions, the millisecond fermate that made the most powerful impact. 

Britten was an avowed pacifist. The grey, restless spirits of the dead are not only pacified by words of faith. The pulse of the War Requiem is dissonant yet seeking harmony, faltering and stammering as the composer leads us to an uncertain vision of peace. The concluding Libera me ended in a whisper with tenor and baritone repeating over and over again “let us sleep now” until the chorus sent them off to eternal peace with whispered, but clearly heard, Requiescant in pace. Amen. Powerful stuff, indeed.

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