With the centenary of the First World War this year, and Benjamin Britten’s own centenary last year, his monumental War Requiem has been getting a lot of outings recently. In between the prayers from the Latin Requiem Mass, Britten mixes moving poems written in the trenches by Wilfred Owen. The two sets of text complement each other with great piquancy, and the work vividly portrays the utter horrors of war and loss, but ends with an uneasy peace, making it an ideal choice for such a significant Remembrance Sunday weekend. It’s not for the faint-hearted though, either in the emotional punch it delivers to its audience, or in the demands it places on the performers (I remember from my own experience that the second alto part covers an astounding two and half octaves), and last night’s performance at Sage Gateshead by Newcastle Bach Choir and Newcastle University, conducted by Eric Cross, was an ambitious undertaking.

Sir Thomas Allen © Sussie Ahlburg
Sir Thomas Allen
© Sussie Ahlburg

The opening chorus, based around spooky tritones, pulsed gently, whilst the sopranos of St Chad’s College Durham, who took the children’s choir part, rang out clear and dry from their perches way up in the rafters of Hall One. When things really got going, the main chorus struggled to make itself heard against the orchestra, despite being some 200 strong: although the tension in the heavy march at the beginning of the Libera me was very effective, the shrill demented cries as the movement reaches its terrifying climax were barely audible. The quieter passages of the piece were very beautiful though: the Recordare offered a sad lilting consolation in the midst of the desolation, and both orchestra and choir gave the unrelenting scales of the Agnus Dei a compelling sense of futility and resignation.

When the War Requiem was first performed, at the consecration of the new cathedral for Coventry, the male solos were taken by an English tenor and a German bass, a symbol of reconciliation and friendship, especially in the final duet when a lost soldier confronts the ghost of the enemy he killed and both men together sing “let us sleep now”. Tonight the symbolism in the male solos was inter-generational: baritone Sir Thomas Allen sad and wise as he evoked the bugles calling from sad shires in the Dies irae against the youthful anger of tenor Robert Murray, whose first solo, the famous “Anthem for Doomed Youth” dripped with bitter sarcasm.

Britten’s writing for the male solos is sparse and clean, almost like a recitative, which meant that every word of the poems was crystal clear. The colouring and comment comes instead from the chamber orchestra accompaniment, and there were excellent performances all round this evening. The winds and horn summoned up the eerie wails of shells and cries of battle with terrifying viciousness, and the strings in the Hostias movement shimmered with harmonics.

The black, emotional centrepiece of the Requiem is Wilfred Owen’s “Parable of the Old Man and the Young”, which retells the awful story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son at God’s command. In Owen’s version, the old man rejects the angel offering an alternative sacrifice and becomes the old men of Europe sending their sons heedlessly to slaughter. The winds and horn of the chamber orchestra recall a hint of the music from the “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, and the movement is framed by the irony of the choir singing about God’s promise to Abraham, in a fugue that is almost irritating in its jauntiness. After the duet and the poignancy of the young choir singing about offering sacrifice in “Hostias et preces tibi” –the fugue returned very quietly, this time to devastating effect.

The soprano soloist is usually positioned somewhere in the chorus, high above the action, and like the choir her solos come from the Latin requiem text. Kate Valentine was a warm, passionate mother figure, soaring effortlessly above the chaos of the battlefield on wings of sadness, weeping for her lost children in the Lacrymosa.

After the hell of the “Libera Me”, comes the final reconciliation, when the tenor meets the ghost of the man he killed. Robert Murray emerged from the battle noise with a silky clarity, giving a real sense of relief and calm. Sir Thomas Allen’s baritone line rose with heavy sadness against a very moving horn solo, until all instruments drop away, leaving the singer totally alone, and he held the hall mesmerised as he sang his final lines that reveal his identity with weary pride. As the soldiers sing together “Let us sleep now” the choirs and soprano return, offering first a moving vision of heaven in the “In Paradisum” – and the girls chorus were radiant here, until the dark tritones of the opening make their return, reminding us not to take peace for granted.