The consequence of any war is destruction, and though ancient buildings continue to crumble under the terrific blast of modern warfare, the spirit of a people undefeated invariably gives way to creation with renewed fervour. Thus it was in 1962 in Coventry that, as the city’s ancient and devastated cathedral sat silently disintegrating from the Second World War’s devastating blow, the people thronged to the new adjacent cathedral of magnificent light and glass. The city authorities desired a new work to open the cathedral and commissioned Benjamin Britten, a conscientious objector and well known pacifist, for a “full evening’s choral work”. The commission struck a chord of sympathy in Britten and though he would not compose for free, as the authorities had originally hoped, he did offer up what Shostakovich considered to be the greatest work of the 20th century: the War Requiem. The work itself, scored for extraordinary forces (a large orchestra with organ, mixed chorus and soprano solo, a chamber orchestra with tenor and baritone soloists, and a boys’ choir accompanied by a chamber organ), is a setting of the Latin Missa pro defunctis interspersed with poems by Wilfred Owen.

Members of the CBSO © Neil Pugh
Members of the CBSO
© Neil Pugh

Despite having sung in two performances of the War Requiem and having spent over ten years devoted to Britten’s legendary Decca recording with Vishnevskaya, Pears and Fischer-Dieskau, tonight’s performance in Birmingham’s spacious Symphony Hall was my first opportunity to approach the work as a live spectator. It was worth the wait.

Conductor Andris Nelsons commanded the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, CBSO Chorus and Youth Chorus, as well as three excellent soloists, in one of those performances that linger in the memory for days after the final notes are heard. The steady, ominous opening provided an excellent opportunity for the orchestra to display the tightness of ensemble, Britten’s unforgiving use of rhythm from the off being a premonition that the worst is yet to come. The chorus also immediately matched the orchestral skill, each brief, disintegrating phrase possessing an accurate and intense level of attention to detail – Britten indicates masses of colour throughout the work and each instruction was rigorously observed. The initial entrance of the Youth Chorus, accompanied by chamber organ high up in the gallery and representing something ethereally beautiful, further cemented the performance’s high standards with excellent diction and precise intonation.

The solos for tenor were heard in the ever-intelligent interpretations of Mark Padmore, and though over the years his is the voice through which I have been introduced to much of the best tenor oratorio repertoire, I feel now that simple beauty of his singing is being forced to succumb to an over-wordy, over-intelligent and over-affected approach – a trait I have recently spotted in other English lyric tenors becoming ever more apparent, including Ian Bostridge, Andrew Kennedy and John Mark Ainsley. It could of course be the simple fact that these men are getting older and have to work harder in order to make the voice perform as it should; nonetheless, Padmore’s diction was flawless, and his colouring of Owen’s bitter texts was impressive and moving. Similarly, German bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann brought extraordinary colour and imagination to his interpretation, though it was evident that some difficulty singing in English was encountered; amusingly, Müller-Brachmann studied with Fischer-Dieskau, and one familiar with his recording would have recognised the same vocal inflections and inaccuracies of pronunciation in the student as with the teacher, particularly in “Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm”. The lyrical facility of the voice however was smooth, clear and poignant, and in duets with Padmore, arresting also, especially in “Out there we walked quite friendly up to Death”.

Soprano Erin Wall, for whom the quantity of music is much less but equally intense, sang well from her position at the front of the choir circle, and worked extremely hard given that her voice has to travel an extra 20 feet or so over the top of the orchestra. In particular her lugubrious interjections in the Lacrimosa were first rate, and her lilting sway coupled with well-focused upper register brought back distinct memories of hearing this music for the first time. Her wild Sanctus and subdued Benedictus similarly were enchanting, despite balance with the chorus and orchestra occasionally putting her at a disadvantage.

The chorus sang excellently throughout with an intense level of dedication made clear in their choral balance, attention to rhythmic detail and conviction of performance – this score is amongst the most difficult in the choral repertoire, particularly in the Libera me where if you lose your place you are out until the end, but these challenges were met head-on and with success.

Finally, the wonderful chamber orchestra, who accompany the tenor and baritone soloists, provided a completely different musical landscape to that of the main orchestra – desolate, desperate, itchy and awkward, there is no warmth of redemption or human sensitivity here, and their accuracy invited an extra layer of intelligence into an all-round memorable performance.