Conflict across the world pours into our homes through the immediacy of television, and we can now see harrowing images unavailable when Britten took up the commission to write a piece for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1961/62. The world was in a precarious state at this time: the Berlin Wall had gone up overnight in August 1961, and at the time of the first performance of this work in May 1962, Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev proposed placing nuclear missiles on Cuba which escalated the Cold War to crisis point in October that year. It was a time when the world came dangerously close to nuclear war, and the population genuinely faced an uncertain tomorrow for a critical few weeks. Britten’s War Requiem, using poetry from the First World War trenches, remembered the past, celebrated the present at Coventry, but it was written to serve as a warning for the future. “I hope it’ll make people think a bit”, he wrote after its first performance.

Coventry Cathedral
Coventry Cathedral

Setting Wilfred Owen’s deeply affecting First World War poetry interwoven with the Latin Requiem text was a masterstroke. Britten had successfully used the device of setting off-stage liturgy to emotionally heighten the high drama of the Sunday morning scene in Peter Grimes, and here he similarly scores for a boys’ choir whose hidden voices intensify Owen’s harrowing verses. The large main orchestra, choirs and soprano soloist sing the Requiem, but the emotional heart is Owen’s poetry sung by a tenor and baritone accompanied by a chamber orchestra speaking more intimately to the audience. All forces come together at the end as both the soldiers’ tales and Requiem unify as they sing “Let us sleep now / Requiescant in pace” before a hushed “Amen” drifts into silence.

The programming of this concert by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra was well timed, bridging the gap between Poppy Day remembrance and the weekend of Britten’s centenary celebrations: Scotland’s turn again in this captivating year-long festival, and timely as Glasgow looks ahead to leading the First World War centenary in August next year. The War Requiem brings enormous emotional reward for players and audience, but with the different combination of forces everything has to fall into place to make it work. The RSNO, chorus and junior chorus at home in Glasgow Concert Hall under Peter Oundjian succeeded brilliantly in many parts, from the haunting troubled opening with bells and hushed choir to the strident Dies irae with the large brass section on tip-top thrilling form, but there were odd moments where focus was lost.

The excellently prepared RSNO junior chorus sounded a very long way off indeed in the Concert Hall, which was disappointing as their pure singing was one of the evening’s highlights. The main chorus took on the challenge of Britten’s difficult complicated score, and if they seemed slightly uneasy at the start of the long central Dies irae section, they were thrilling later in the Offertorium and Sanctus, singing with crystal-clear diction. Russian soprano Evelina Dobračeva (standing in for an indisposed Susan Gritton) soared in the Lacrimosa, heartbreakingly sung against Owen’s poem Futility.

The emotional punch this work carries relies on the two male soloists and chamber orchestra. Here, section leaders made up the ensemble and they played with meticulous, bright attention to detail. Lyrical tenor Jeffrey Francis and light-toned, sympathetic baritone Russell Braun generally carried Owen’s poems well, working together successfully in the chilling Parable of the Young Man and the Old, but at other times Francis struggled to get to the soulful kernel of the work, and directing his singing mainly to those on the left-hand side of the hall did not help.

I was hoping for a greater overall emotional impact from this evening, but certainly key parts have stayed with me, particularly the heartbreakingly poignant Strange Meeting and the start of the final passage of the Libera me as the junior chorus sang In paridisum from afar. The bells at the end recalled the anxious harmonies at the start and clearly emphasised the warning for the future. Although the world may not be quite as precarious as it was in 1962, the message is as relevant over 50 years later from the historic first performance.

***11