Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, Antonio Pappano led the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Orchestra and Choir, together with first-class soloists, in an intense performance of the War Requiem. Pappano, musical director of this orchestra since 2005, has just recorded this monumental piece and demonstrated a good rapport with the orchestra and knowledge of the work’s every crease.

The demanding score of Britten’s War Requiem includes a big orchestra, a small chamber orchestra, a large mixed choir, a boys’ choir and three vocal soloists: a soprano, a tenor and a baritone. It is made up of different levels: the latin text is sung by choir and soprano, and Wilfred Owen’s verses are assigned to tenor and baritone parts, accompanied by the chamber orchestra. The piece is not only a religious invocation, but a whole war scenario in which intimate reflection prevails. Pappano’s performance entirely valued these differences and interwoven levels that create a comprehensive overview of war.

The Accademia di Santa Cecilia Orchestra is a top-ranking Italian ensemble. Their performance was professional and accurate in every single detail. In the “Tuba mirum”, where the orchestra and the choir are at their fullest exertion, the brass above all stood out. In the Sanctus, the percussionists played remarkably. An outstanding performance also came from the Santa Cecilia Choir, thanks to chorus master Ciro Visco: it was always in tune, and able to render the subtle shades of the War Requiem from the very beginning. The initial pianissimo in the Requiem aeterna was skilfully modulated, sounding like a caress. And the Recordare was a sinister lullaby, as if dimly lit. The treble voices from the Salzburger Festspiele and Theater Kinderchor, were probably as good as the Santa Cecilia Choir, but unfortunately they were so far away that sometimes it was very difficult to hear what they sang. During the Offertorium the only words you could hear were “Jesu Christe”.

Ian Bostridge goes the extra mile. In addition to his powerful projection, he has perfect elocution, and was fluent in passages full of abbellimenti (embellishments). Bostridge was absolutely at ease on stage: not only is his voice a marvel, but the way he moved and acted and his facial expressions added meaning to the performance. In the solo tenor section of Libera me Bostridge seemed to be not only a tenor, but a Gregorian singer and Lieder singer all at once – his vocal timbre has a full palette of colours.

Colourful, too, was Thomas Hampson’s voice, although his elocution compared to Bostridge was less clear or impressive. Hampson is a powerful baritone, but he sometimes went too far. In verses such as “Think how it wakes the seed” it seemed as though he didn’t simply highlight pivotal words, such as “think”, “star”, or “stir”, but nearly spat them out. However, the tenor and baritone duet in the Offertorium (recalling the story of Abram and Isaac) worked very well, sounding like a sincere plea of pity.

Anna Netrebko was dressed as a nymph, wearing a diamond diadem on her head. Apart from this puzzling costume, her voice filled the whole hall, but often she tended to sing too loudly. For example, in the Rex tremendae, she possibly overdid it slightly in order to stand out from the huge choir behind her, with the result that her elocution was occasionally confused. In the Lacrimosa I found her to be indulging in excess – she was acting almost too sensually. Much sweeter, however, was the Sanctus in which she sang with the choir.

Emotionally involving was the last part of Libera me, where the excellent chamber orchestra – especially the horn, the oboe, and clarinettist Alessandro Carbonare – distinguished themselves.