Tonight’s was an historic performance, so first, a few dates. On 14th November 1940, Luftwaffe bombing raids destroyed much of the medieval centre of Coventry, including most of its cathedral. On 30th May 1962, Benjamin Britten’s specially-commissioned War Requiem was premièred by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Sir Basil Spence’s newly consecrated cathedral. This building was ultra-modern for its time and built adjacent and in stark contrast to the ruins in a spirit of reconciliation. Fifty years later to the day, tonight’s concert was a highlight of the cathedral’s golden anniversary celebrations, and was sold out months in advance.

Coventry Cathedral; photo by cmglee, Wikimedia Commons
Coventry Cathedral; photo by cmglee, Wikimedia Commons

A lifelong pacifist, Britten chose to interweave into the Latin text of the Mass of the Dead a kind of song cycle comprising nine of Owen’s First World War poems, drawing attention to the futility and criminal waste of war. Owen’s own death, at 25, just days before hostilities ended, makes the sentiments within the poetry all the more poignant. The philosophy behind his art – ‘All a poet can do today is warn. That is why true poets must be truthful’ – struck a chord with Britten, who grasped the opportunity to compose a work that would challenge the audience to remember why the new cathedral had been built.

Considering this was Britten’s first major choral/orchestral work, he also set himself a huge challenge in the scale of the musical forces involved. As well as full orchestra and choir for the Missa pro Defunctis, a chamber orchestra accompanies the soloists’ interpretation of the poems, with organ accompaniment for a children’s choir, at a distance – and preferably two conductors, as at the première, when Britten himself directed the chamber orchestra. On that occasion the intended symbolism of an English-German-Russian company of soloists sadly didn’t come to fruition, as we were still in Cold War times and Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya was prevented from coming. In a cruel symmetry, Andris Nelsons’ compatriot, Latvian Kristine Opolais, was indisposed for this evening’s performance. Erin Wall proved a fantastic last-minute stand-in and the whole performance was a masterclass in seamless teamwork.

Contrary to the première’s layout, tonight the cathedral was set up back-to-front, so that the choir and orchestra – full and chamber – were placed in front of the West Screen, a wall of glass engraved with trumpet-blowing angels, beyond which stood the old cathedral’s ruins – a constant reminder. Conducted by Simon Halsey, the Youth Chorus were at the opposite end, below Graham Sutherland’s tennis-court-sized tapestry ‘Christ in Glory’, so that their fine pure voices floated right down the nave, over the audience’s heads.

After earlier rain, there was now calm and a real sense of eager anticipation. And yet we were treated to the subtlest of pianissimo entries, the chorus beautifully controlled as ever, responding to Nelsons’ minutely-nuanced hand movements. Backed by ominous tubular bells and drums, the scene was set for this complex exploration of life and death, war and reconciliation.

How exquisite when Mark Padmore breathed life into ‘What passing bells for those who die as cattle?’ The poems were shared with Hanno Müller-Brachmann, previously a pupil of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the baritone soloist at the première, who sadly passed away earlier in May. Their individual singing, with eyes as well as voice, and their rapport when they duetted, especially in ‘Strange Meeting’ – the imagined post-death mutual recognition of two enemy soldiers – was immensely moving. Because it was so vital to catch Owen’s words, it was a pity there were one or two issues with balance, the orchestra at times overpowering the soloists. That was the only downside, though, and what on earth to select as the highlight? The terrifying Dies Irae, with its pronounced rallentando at the end, creating an atmosphere of foreboding? The delicious lyrical alto lead in the Recordare? The basses’ menacing Confutatis? The drama of brass and percussion? The eloquence of perfectly poised silences, holding the audience spellbound? The pathos of ‘Futility’, touchingly interwoven with the Lacrimosa lament? ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ will remain the most powerful memory for me, with heart-stopping harmonies from tenor and baritone and the relentless repetition of ‘one by one’ as they sang of countless deaths, against a backdrop of innocent young voices calling for peace and rest.

The final hushed ‘Requiescant in pace, Amen’ was followed by many minutes’ contemplative silence, with dusk just beginning to fall upon the ruins beyond the performers. What we had witnessed was art of the highest calibre.

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