The newly built and unconventionally imposing Coventry Cathedral, built next to the ruins of the original medieval building destroyed in the Second World War, played host to the first performance of Britten’s War Requiem in 1962. Although the war was long over and rationing had ended in 1954, urban landscapes – and particularly Coventry’s – were still being rebuilt well into the 1960s; the effects of war were still being felt by an entire nation.

© Robert Piwko
© Robert Piwko

Britten’s setting of the Requiem strongly reflects his pacifist convictions; he lamented the scourge of war and never considered wars a necessary or legitimate conduit to resolving problems. Britten reinforces his ideology by interspersing the propers of the Requiem mass with settings of some of Wilfred Owen’s gritty and realistic war poetry, and, highly symbolically, intended the first performance to bring together soloists from three of the formerly warring nations: the British tenor, and Britten’s life partner, Peter Pears; the legendary German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; and Russian soprano Galina Vishneshkaya, who, in the event, was not permitted to sing by her government.

Britten’s intentions were realised in a performance of the War Requiem as part of the City of London Festival, whose theme of “Conflict and Resolution”, coupled with the Britten Centenary celebrations, made an outing of this magnum opus inevitable. Evelina Dobraceva (replacing fellow Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova), tenor Toby Spence, and German-born baritone Russell Braun were the soloists.

The setting for this particular performance was St Paul’s Cathedral. With the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus – whose predecessors sang at the work’s première – set under the dome, the glittering mosaics and vertiginous columns of the Quire provided a spectacular backdrop. The eternal complaint about the Cathedral’s boomy and echoic acoustic, though, proved to be problematic – though not as much as I had expected.

In some ways, in fact, the acoustic aided the performance. In the opening movement, Requiem aeternam, the chorus’ murmurings seemed to come, at a distance, out of nowhere; an eerily evocative beginning to this emotionally raw work. The boys of St Paul’s Cathedral Choir were placed out of sight in the Quire, which gave their sound clarity and enabled easy projection, too. The soloists, who were near-enough directly under the centre of the dome, produced a large enough sound with sufficient clear diction to be heard above the large orchestra and numerous chorus.

That said, the acoustic presented some insurmountable problems. Those of us who were lucky enough to sit in the front rows were able to hear the chorus, but even at this short distance it was occasionally a struggle to hear the words (as opposed to the sound itself) above the orchestra – those sitting in the Nave would, I suspect, have had a better chance of hearing all aspects of this performance by listening to the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3, which is a pity: for all these issues, it was tremendous.

The War Requiem’s scale is not the easiest to work with – physical spacing aside, the various combinations of choirs, soloists and orchestra need to be finely balanced and kept ensemble. Conductor Edward Gardner made it look easy: his unwavering hold over all the musical and vocal forces no doubt gave confidence to the performers themselves. Just occasionally the chorus did not come off together at the ends of phrases, but this is but a small point of criticism. Andrew Carwood, Director of Music at St Paul’s, effectively relayed Gardner’s instructions to the choir of boys, who sang strongly and with impeccable intonation.

“What passing bells”, the first of the Owen poems, set the tone for the calibre of the soloists: Toby Spence’s vibrant tenor made this poem come to life. Equally impressive was “Move him, move him”, sung with heart-rending emotion. Soprano Evelina Dobraceva complemented him perfectly in the accompanying Lacrimosa as her voice soared high above the delicate sound of the chorus. Her strong-point was Libera me – the “tremens factus sum ergo” passage sounded wrought with fear, dramatically, rather than nervously, speaking, and the powerful brass and percussive forces played into the sense of foreboding. Russell Braun’s rich, velvety baritone was an inspired choice: his “Be slowly lifted up” was forcefully dark, yet he revealed a greater intensity in the pared-back “Strange Meeting”, in which he, the German soldier, sings to Spence, the British Tommy, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend”. The decidedly more peaceful duet “Let us sleep now”/In paradisum was sung by Spence and Braun with sincere feeling, their imitative lines reflecting Britten’s stance that no side was better than another in this bloody war. The contemplative “Conclusion” was achingly beautifully sung and performed. At its end, Gardner showed that even the audience had fallen under his spell as the entire building fell into complete silence until he, after what felt like a minute, lowered his hands. It was a stirring concert, and one in which this enormously complex work seemed to be understood by all the performers alike.

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