The day after Lorin Maazel conducted the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem last month, an estimated 140,000 fans read the blog post he wrote entitled “When Will We Stop the Slaughter”. Hard on the heels of this success, he has been in Hong Kong in the last week with “Lorin Maazel Fest”, a programme of events celebrating the centenary and bicentenary of Britten and Wagner respectively and educating young musicians with the overture to The Mastersingers of Nuremberg.

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra © Keith Hiro / HK Phil
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
© Keith Hiro / HK Phil

November is an important month for Benjamin Britten and his War Requiem, commissioned for the consecration of the reconstructed Coventry Cathedral in 1962. It was in this month that Britten himself had been born in 1913 on the feast day of St Cecilia; Wilfred Owen, whose poetry is an integral part of the Requiem, had died days before the armistice for World War I came into effect in 1918; and the original St Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry was almost wiped out overnight by German bombs in 1940.

The audience gathered at the re-opening of the cathedral would have expected to hear a reverential tribute to the nearly half a million lives Britain lost in World War II and the destruction it endured. What would their reaction have been when they heard Britten’s none-too-subtle anti-war message? Although the Requiem is a plea for peace, the delivery of the message is anything but peaceful. Tension and irony abound in the interjection of Owen’s poetry into the Latin text of Missa pro defunctis (“Mass for the Dead”). Add to this the jarring C to F sharp tritone that pervades the work, and you have some incendiary material.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic’s performance of Britten’s War Requiem on Thursday under Lorin Maazel speaks plenty about its maturity after 40 years as a professional orchestra. Within the constraints of the Cultural Centre Concert Hall, it tried to reproduce the format close to what Britten intended. The orchestra was joined by a mixed chorus in the gallery upstairs, with the soprano positioning herself one level above the chorus at the back, just in front of the organist. The principals of each section of the orchestra formed a chamber ensemble with its own conductor, upstage underneath the gallery, behind the tenor and baritone soloists. A children’s choir sang off stage.

The slow, solemn opening of the first section, Requiem aeternam, set the tone for an evening of introspective agony and remembrance of personal suffering. I wish the orchestra had been a little more emphatic – it sounded as if it had not warmed up adequately, and the chiming bells hardly made a mark. The chorus, on the other hand, was more than up to scratch, and the children’s choir off stage delivered the full impact of its ethereal commentary. Within two weeks before the performance, both the tenor and baritone soloists originally scheduled to appear withdrew, and were replaced by emergency substitutes. Tenor Timothy Robinson’s entry with Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” was rather chaotic, forcing his way into wobbly high notes with muddled diction.

The Dies irae was a vast improvement. As the opening brass and staccato chorus deftly painted the war scene, bass-baritone Michael Anthony McGee chipped in with an untitled Owen poem. Soft woodwind agitation underpinned his firm grip of the vocal line, paving the way for soprano Nancy Gustafson to slip in unceremoniously at Liber scriptus. Being above but very much part of the chorus, she added poignancy to the liturgy.

The woodwinds, especially the bassoon, and harp did a fine job punctuating the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Offertorium, delivered by the male soloists in alternation at first but joining hands towards the end. The irony inherent in the final phrase “And half of the seed of Europe, one by one” could have been better dramatised. The percussion came out in force in the Sanctus, partly overshadowing the soprano’s grand entry, but providing temporary relief from deathly sombreness. The tenor’s interaction with the chorus in the Agnus Dei was erratic, smooth at times but jagged at others.

“Strange Meeting”, Owen’s poem about the afterlife encounter between two soldiers from opposite sides, put the finishing touches to Britten’s theme of the futility of war with the words “Let us sleep now” in the final section, Libera me. The cornucopia of orchestral, vocal and choral forces brought the anguish to a head, reaching an apocalyptic crescendo before dying down to the helpless signoff by the chorus: “Requiescant in pace. Amen.” (“May they rest in peace. Amen.”). We heaved a sigh of relief as Maestro Maazel gently closed his fingers to signal the choir to finish. Mourning for the dead, the Hong Kong Philharmonic came to life.