How to commemorate the dead in music? Composers have wrestled with this problem over the ages. A requiem mass, a threnody, a funeral march? All tried and tested. In their different ways Britten and Shostakovich demonstrated throughout their careers how music chimes in with the message of human mortality.

Jaime Martín
© Alexander Lindstrom

There was an inescapable smell of death lingering over this concert given by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain under Jaime Martín, tempered only by the celebration of revolutionary ardour which often preceded individual sacrifice. In its dying days, the Weimar Republic saw political strife move to the streets, dominated by marching songs and random killings. Hanns Eisler, one of Schoenberg’s pupils, whose chief claim to later fame was for composing East Germany’s national anthem, contributed his Auf den Straßen zu singen in 1928 for the benefit of the German Workers’ Singing Association, of whom there were nearly half a million members. Martín had the 164 NYO players stand for this five-minute piece, unaccompanied save for a side drum, and deliver the somewhat trite words of an English translation politely rather than passionately.

Initially planned as a celebration of the Japanese imperial tradition, and then rejected for its melancholic mood and identification with Christian funeral rites, Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem became a very personal tribute to the memory of both of his parents. To later generations it resonates more strongly in terms of its powerful anti-war sentiment. Its cogency and dramatic sweep make it one of this composer’s boldest statements. Yet, like all such pieces, it needs a sympathetic interpreter. Martín, his head often in the score, didn’t seem entirely at ease with Britten’s idiom. The opening Lacrymosa got off to a limp start: the weeping was intermittently sustained.

Things improved in the central Dies irae, with the strings suitably light on their feet and snappy interjections from wind and brass, though without much evidence of the Allegro con fuoco marking. It is here that Britten reveals his master touches of orchestration, deftly conveyed by the NYO: the tremolo flutes, the eerie sound of the alto saxophone, the tread-like rhythms in the lower strings balancing the gaunt and hollow-eyed woodwind choir, and the subtle way in which this Scherzo ultimately exhausts itself.

Presumably, it was at the conductor’s instigation that three of the movements in Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 11 in G minor, “The Year 1905”, were prefaced with the singing (again in English, though the words were largely lost) of some of the popular pre-revolutionary songs that the composer interweaves into the musical fabric. This was a case of gilding the lily. There is deep irony in the use of material destined to celebrate 40 years of the October Revolution. So much so that at one of the rehearsals prior to the premiere, the composer’s son Maxim, on recognising the quotes, turned to his father and whispered, “Won’t they hang you for this?”

Martín kept things very much on the move, especially in the first two movements, where his clear beat and care over transparency of textures ensured a sense of steady momentum. There was fine commitment in the playing throughout, with martial trumpet fanfares and lustrous flutes in The Palace Square, a beautifully sensitive viola lament in Eternal Memory and a heartfelt cor anglais solo in Tocsin. It was good to hear a heightened metallic quality in the final celebratory episode, accentuated by the furious xylophone, emphasising the composer’s irony. What a shame though that premature applause interrupted the resonating bell. This symphony needs to end in silence and in moments of reflection.