While professional and amateur orchestras across the land celebrate the dubious glories of World War 1 with programmes full of Nimrods and Jerusalems, this coming-together of orchestras and singers from Liverpool and Hannover for Britten’s overwhelmingly pacifist War Requiem made for a profoundly moving occasion even before the first note was played.

The <i>War Requiem</i> in Liverpool Cathedral © Mark McNulty
The War Requiem in Liverpool Cathedral
© Mark McNulty

This concert was the return fixture after the same forces played the Requiem in Hannover last Saturday. The venue tonight, Liverpool’s mighty Anglican Cathedral, was a visually and conceptually magnificent choice, if a far cry from concert hall acoustics. The musicians were arranged with chamber orchestra at the front of the stage, to Andrew Manze’s right, with Liverpudlians and Hannoverians intermingling, and the Knabenchor Hannover and Choristers of Liverpool Cathededral stationed high above the audience on the bridge. The evening began, after some slightly lengthy speeches, with a succession of recorded recollections of the war, alternating in English and German, taken from memories of relatives of the two sets of choristers. It was an affecting prelude, before seamlessly starting the Requiem aeternum.

The tone for the whole Requiem was quickly established: spacious tempi allowed softer passages to float magically into the air, with the chamber orchestra and soloists providing the rare moments of textural clarity, while elsewhere Manze was happy to forge onwards, though never with any undue hurry. The hyper-resonant acoustic was fully embraced, allowing each cadence its proper weighting. The last bars of the Requiem aeternum, as a case in point, dissolved into a pianissimo resolution, floating away into silence beautifully.

The <i>War Requiem</i> in Hannover © Helge Kruckeberg
The War Requiem in Hannover
© Helge Kruckeberg

The opening moments of the Dies irae, scarcely more than a harsh whisper from the chorus, were as crisp as could be hoped for, making way for what would prove to be the heart of the work. With the performance broadcast in real time to multiple screens around the cathedral for those not within sight of the stage, it was curious that the orchestra, but seemingly not the chorus, were given microphones. This made for an occasionally slightly skewed sense of balance in the loudest passages, though the return of the Dies irae was nonetheless monumental. The soloists had no trouble in projecting. Susanne Bernhard, perched high in the pulpit, sang with admirable control and beauty of sound, elegantly blending in and out of the chorus, while tenor Ed Lyon and baritone Benjamin Appl were responsible for the evening’s most touchingly intimate moments.

Andrew Manze, Ed Lyon and Benjamin Appl © Mark McNulty
Andrew Manze, Ed Lyon and Benjamin Appl
© Mark McNulty

The Offertorium, Sanctus and Agnus Dei seemed to flash past in no time at all (testament to Manze’s shrewd pacing). The spatial separation of the boys’ choirs was very effective in the former, alongside a twinkling organ. The quietest moments remained the most striking, though there was much to enjoy in the joyful peeling of bells and brass in the Sanctus. The Libera me, by contrast, saw rigid percussion machinations drive the music into some enormous fortissimos. It was Appl, though, who produced the most devastatingly moving passage of the evening in his lines “I am the enemy you killed, my friend”, directly addressing Lyon next to him. The ovation was richly deserved, as much for the concept of this extraordinary concert as for the quality of the playing.

****1