Do we hear Britten's War Requiem too often these days? It’s surely one of the most important pieces of music to have been written since the Second World War, and it’s special beyond expressing; but it’s also one of those works of art where the music is indivisible from the message – unlike, say, a symphony by Beethoven or Brahms – and I wonder whether it takes a particular sense of occasion to make it really work. We heard it a lot around the First World War centenary commemorations, of course, and the last time it was at the Edinburgh International Festival was in 2014, for that very reason. Does it need something like that in order for it to really work?

Daniel Harding
© Ryan Buchanan

These questions rattled around my head after this EIF performance, the second part of the Orchestre de Paris’ two-concert residency, because musically and technically this performance was pretty flawless, but for me there was also a fundamental problem: I simply wasn’t moved.

The playing of the main orchestra was majestic and steady, particularly in the opening Requiem aeternam, and the catastrophe they conjured up during the Libera me was awesome, as was the twinkling light of the Sanctus. The chamber orchestra, meanwhile, was a select band of virtuosi who dazzled their way through the poems, with a particularly lovely halo of sound for the angel’s words during the Offertorio, and they dealt admirably with the spiky harmonies of the baritone’s Strange Meeting solo in the final movement.

The soloists themselves were also very good, particularly Florian Boesch, who gave us his voice at its most honeyed, all the while demonstrating exemplary English diction. Andrew Staples’ voice is a taste I don’t always acquire, but he was on his finest form tonight, singing with feeling, flavour and a great deal of heart, with an especially moving Agnus Dei. Emma Bell’s soprano is a voice I struggle to love, and it was on its fullest display here. It’s a big instrument which to me always quivers at the boundary of becoming squally. She stayed on the right side of that boundary for her fire-eating solos, but I’m glad I’m not in that voice’s company very often.

The girls of NYCoS were spine-tingling in the perfection of their tone, sounding both eerie and majestic as they drifted in from the distance of the Grand Circle foyer. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus sang with vigour and energy and, again, with excellent diction, and their quiet singing was especially impressive. Daniel Harding’s control of the whole thing was exemplary, too, and I really liked the way he distinguished between the vowel and the final consonant in words like “eleison” and “Amen.” Such great attention to detail goes a long way.

Musically speaking, therefore, everything was in its place and was very fine to boot. And yet I wasn’t moved. There were some tingly moments, such as the entry of the girls at the end of the Offertorio or the synthesis of the very end, but it has to be a pretty poor performance to muck those up. No: something kept me at an emotional distance and meant that I couldn’t identify with the performance in the way that the piece demands. Like the Lady of Shalott’s mirror, I felt like I was experiencing the performance at one remove, able to appreciate its technical perfection but responding to it in the same way I would to a photo of a great painting. I confess I’m slightly baffled as to why. All reviews are personal, this one perhaps more than many, but I come back to my original question: is it a piece that needs a particular sense of occasion in order for it to work?