Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is a monumental piece of music: literally, architecturally and aesthetically. It is a literal monument because of its creation for Coventry Cathedral, that architectural testament to the creative and destructive powers of man. Housing many works of contemporary art in its walls of brick and glass, this impressive building has as its frontispiece the ruins of the medieval cathedral, shelled to near nothingness in the bombings of World War Two. Architecturally, too, the Requiem reflects the structure of the cathedral, in its juxtaposing of the ancient and the modern texts of the Requiem mass and the poems of Wilfred Owen, as well as in its sheer dimensions – lasting 90 minutes and employing two orchestras, three vocal soloists, two organs, and a host of singers, it is a behemoth of a work. And aesthetically, nothing could be more of a monument to the creative genius of the composer, the poet and indeed all performers involved: it is Britten at his most intelligent, impassioned and universal.

Any performance of the War Requiem is a momentous occasion; requiring such a mass of highly skilled performers, as well as a space big enough to accommodate them all, it is a work that is rarely performed. Equally, though, it requires such a high level of intense emotional involvement on the part of both listeners and performers as to make its scarcity somewhat necessary. In other words, it isn’t the sort of piece you’d want to witness too often, because it would leave you frail, drained, even hollow. Such is its immense power.

Thus as I took my seat in the Royal Festival Hall to see Lorin Maazel conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra, Voices and Chorus, the Tiffin Boys’ Choir, soprano Nancy Gustafson, tenor Mark Padmore, baritone Matthias Goerne, along with Aidan Oliver conducting the chamber orchestra, I felt an anticipation bordering on dread at the spectacle I was on the brink of witnessing. The restless melodic fragments of both orchestra and chorus in the opening Requiem Aeternam did little to assuage my apprehension. Britten exploits that most dissonant interval, the tritone (or, significantly, the ‘Devil in Music’), throughout the work: here his use of it on the words ‘lux perpetua’ is particularly striking, as one can’t help thinking of Fauré’s luminous setting of the very same words. Evidently, Britten intended to re-evaluate the timeless words in the wake of recent historical events: indeed, like the stones of the old Coventry Cathedral, the Latin text throughout the piece is often fragmented, broken down into its constituent syllables, shattered by the bombs of human evil and misery.

This style contrasts startlingly with the tenor and baritone solo passages, in which the singers recite Owen’s harrowing yet humane verse in Britten’s exceptional and idiosyncratic song style. Mark Padmore, sounding rather like Peter Pears, confirmed his uncanny capacity for communicating both the musical and the poetic qualities of his lines with perfection. Paired with Matthias Goerne’s remarkably rich yet exceptionally expressive baritone, Owen’s poems were performed with the empathy and deep human understanding that Britten’s settings demand. Accompanied by the ‘one-per-part’ chamber orchestra, whose intricate lines and intimate soundworld stand apart from the main orchestra’s hugely varying range of musical expression, these songs provide the work with its emotional and philosophical core. They contrast on the one hand with the sheer drama and combined orchestral and choral power of movements like the Dies Irae, with its bugle calls and responses firing it into a huge wave of sound that crashes over enthralled and terrified listeners; and on the other with moments of pure, otherworldly stasis, such as the disembodied sound of the distant boys’ choir and chamber organ in Offertorium, or the three moments of nebulous, redemptive, a cappella choral writing which punctuate this testament to horrific human cruelty with moments of musical rest and spiritual hope – and with which, significantly, this masterpiece ends.

This concert was the third instalment of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s groundbreaking series ‘“The still point of the turning world”: Music that defines an era’. No piece could fit the bill more perfectly than this, and few performances could have encapsulated its trans-historical importance, and the challenge it sets humanity, in such a profoundly moving way. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is a monumental piece of music: this performance of it was, in turn, a living, breathing monument.