As the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War approaches, performances of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem are multiplying. There is indeed perhaps no work better suited to commemorate those who died in the trenches of Northern Europe and elsewhere. This thoroughly pacifist work interweaves compelling poems by Wilfred Owen, a British soldier who was killed in action on 4th November 1918, just days before the Armistice, into the Latin Requiem liturgy.

Gianandrea Noseda
© Steve Sherman

It will sound strange perhaps, to fellow Europeans, but the Netherlands has no tradition of remembrance in November: the country had managed to stay neutral and unscarred during the Great War. Last Thursday’s performance by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s was instead programmed to commemorate another anniversary (albeit somewhat linked to the end of WW1): the 100th anniversary of the state of Latvia. For the occasion, it was originally supposed to be conducted by the Latvian Mariss Jansons, the orchestra’s chief conductor from 2004 until 2015. Alas, the Amsterdam-based orchestra seems to have been struck by ill fate in recent months and the Latvian maestro was announced as ill a few weeks ago. Gianandrea Noseda, a conductor already familiar with the work, replaced him and led the orchestra, choirs and an ideal team of soloists in an unfussy, memorable performance.

Premiered in 1963 for the consecration of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, the work is scored for full symphony orchestra, chorus and soprano soloist, as well as a boys’ choir accompanied by an organ for the Latin liturgy, and a chamber orchestra with tenor and baritone soloists for Owen’s poetry. On Thursday evening, a few musicians of the RCO were placed to the right of the podium, in front of a children’s choir and harmonium, to play the more intimate chamber music accompanying the tenor and baritone’s solos and duets on the poet’s starkly anti-war verses. Following the lead of concertmaster Liviu Prunaru, they played superbly, their golden sound competing with the burnished strings of the rest of the orchestra. So much so that, at times, I would almost have wanted a more pronounced contrast between the two orchestras. From the full orchestra, the brass section shone in the elaborate fanfare elements that stubbornly keep returning in several movements. The forces of the Netherlands Radio Choir and Flemish Radio Choir combined superbly and their staggering sound provided the perfect contrast with the ethereal clarity of the Nationaal Kinderkoor (National Children’s Choir).

The combination of three vocal soloists was possibly the best one could wish today and followed Benjamin Britten’s idea to defy nationalism by gathering artists representing of three main participants in the Second World War: an English tenor, a German baritone and a Russian soprano (in fact, when the work premiered in Coventry, at the height of the Cold War, Galina Vishnevskaya was not permitted to travel and join Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau). On her first appearance in the Netherlands, soprano Elena Stikhina proved that she is a true rising star, her warm and luminous instrument majestically riding the wave of sound coming from chorus and orchestra with exemplary dramatic flair. Mark Padmore was a captivating storyteller, his expressive lyrical tenor turning full-bodied in “Move him, move him to the sun” or lightening with plaintive sadness in “One ever hangs”. Michael Volle might have initially made a touch less of his words but his bronze-coloured baritone contrasted beautifully with the light tone of his English counterpart, whether they were bonding and bragging in “Out there we walked quite friendly up to death” or in their poignant last poem “It seems that out of battle I escaped”. His character mortally wounded, he sang this most heartrending line: “ I am the enemy you killed my friend”.