There was a long moment of silence, not a cough to be heard, at the end of Britten's War Requiem in the National Concert Hall in Dublin on Friday. It felt like Ireland, moved by a powerful performance of this searing music, was reflecting on and reassessing its past, before the audience burst into tumultuous applause.

With Irish President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina attending in a special box in the balcony, the performance of pacifist Britten's setting of the Mass for the Dead, interlaced with the scathing verses of war poet Wilfred Owen (who was killed in battle a week before the armistice) had a special significance. Ireland, on the centenary of the armistice, has been trying to reconcile with the legacy of the 220,000 Irishmen who served in the British Army and were largely shunned – and on occasion murdered – upon their return to an Ireland that was breaking with Britain to become a republic.

Robin Tritschler and Gavan Ring © RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra & Philharmonic Choir
Robin Tritschler and Gavan Ring
© RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra & Philharmonic Choir

The lingering national trauma has been dealt with in many Irish newspaper articles and television documentaries, but this musical evocation of the horrors of that war – and all wars – was special. Britten's work was first performed in 1962 as a commission to mark the opening of the new cathedral in Coventry, England, to replace the one bombed in a German air raid in 1940.

Written for two orchestras, three soloists, a mixed chorus and boys' choir, the War Requiem was hailed at its première as a masterpiece, Britten's best large-scale work since Peter Grimes. But performances are rare in Ireland, so for this occasion the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, with former assistant conductor David Brophy at the helm, went all out. Squeezed onto the concert hall stage were the NSO and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir took over the Choir Balcony, while The Choristers of St Patrick's Cathedral boys' choir held an airy perch in the balcony at the opposite end of the hall. Three of Ireland's most renowned singers, soprano Ailish Tynan, tenor Robin Tritschler and baritone Gavan Ring, handled the solo parts.

To say that this all sounded spectacular would be an understatement. Everyone, from the musicians to the soloists to the choirs and even the audience, rose to the occasion. Tynan, in particular, impressed, in beautiful voice for her plaintive solo in the "Dies irae" and her powerful instrument soared above the massive forces of the choir in the thundering wall of sound that was the "Libera me".

Ailish Tynan © RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra & Philharmonic Choir
Ailish Tynan
© RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra & Philharmonic Choir

The two male soloists sang Owen's poems and, even after hearing the piece a dozen times, the verses Britten chose and his settings are still chilling. Owen's twist on the Biblical story of Abraham being ordered to sacrifice his son, Isaac, but earning a last-minute reprieve, never fails to shock. In Owen's version, a heavenly voice orders Abraham not to touch his son but he kills him anyway... "and half the seed of Europe, one by one". Tritschler and Ring made a fine vocal pair, as son and father here, and as buddies in the earlier, Kurt Weill-esque setting of Owen's poem about soldiers laughing at death.

But the showstopper – and the piece that leaves an indelible image of the waste of war – is the encounter by the tenor with a group of "sleepers" on the battlefield, one of whom, sung by the baritone, springs up and stares "with piteous recognition in fixed eyes". "I am the enemy you killed, my friend, I knew you in this dark," the dead man sings, and though he regrets the life he will not live, he bears no animus. "Let us sleep now," he says.

As Tritschler and Ring sang this refrain repeatedly, the boys' choir, the mixed choir and the soprano joined in with the concluding words of the mass, Mahleresque and intensely beautiful. But there are also dissonances, plus instances of the unsettling augmented fourth Britten seeds throughout. This is a plea for peace, and reconciliation, but with no illusions, well controlled by Brophy and magnificently performed by all concerned. 

*****