Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday was celebrated on Thursday at the Berlin Konzerthaus with a spectacular performance of his seminal War Requiem. Performed by the combined forces of the Berlin choir Cantus Domus, the North London Chorus, the Berliner Mädchenchor, the Konzerthaus Orchestra and various soloists, and led by not one but two conductors, the evening was haunting and wonderful, a perfect tribute to Britten.

Konzerthaus Orchestra Berlin © Marco Borggreve
Konzerthaus Orchestra Berlin
© Marco Borggreve

Utilizing both the traditional Latin text of a Requiem mass and the war poetry of Wilfred Owen, Britten’s evocation of the human tragedy of war was composed for the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral, which had been newly constructed after being destroyed in the Second World War. The work is harsh and beautiful. As the chorus sings the traditional mass for the dead, tenor and baritone lament their role in the battle and sing of the horror of seeing their friends dying all around them, before realizing at last that their enemy is no enemy at all.

It is a work of breathtaking scope, requiring both a chamber and a full sized orchestra, three separate choirs and three soloists. Cantus Domus, the North London Chorus and the Berliner Mädchenchor coming together made for a haunting experience, as the massive combined orchestra, strategically located all around the hall, thrilled and wept and howled its way through the traditional Latin text. The Mädchenchor, an elite Berlin-based girls’ choir, was especially haunting, as the girls’ angelic voices were juxtaposed against the horror of the soloists’ words.

Soloists Nicole Chevalier, Nicky Spence and Sebastian Noack rose to the challenge of ringing every possible drop of emotion from the score. Chevalier’s lush soprano rose over the men’s voices as she lamented and prayed for them. Tenor Spence and baritone Noack sang with grace and aplomb. If there were any problems at all, it was perhaps the slightly muddled English phrases from Noack, who tended to swallow his words and make them indecipherable. This, however, was hardly noticeable and did not detract in any way from the strength of the piece. The Konzerthaus Orchestra, led by Ralf Sochaczewsky and Murray Hipkin, did a magnificent job, divided as it was into two. The sound was cohesive and clean, haunting and beautiful, overwhelming but never overpowering: exactly how Britten would have wanted it.

In this overblown Verdi/Wagner birth year, when every opera house and concert hall in the world has pulled out all the stops to let the Great Duo take over their repertoire, the War Requiem was a sophisticated palate-cleanser to all of the tales of unrequited, impossible love and treachery in the world of opera. In writing his Requiem, Britten asks us not to look at one unfortunate love triangle, but at the entire human race, and asks us if we are willing to repeat our mistakes over and over. And as tenor and baritone sink into death together in the end, we see that maybe the enemy was not so very different from ourselves. It is a statement as striking now as it was in the post-war period, and one that stays with the listener long after the concert is over.

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