On 6th September 1918, after four years in which requiems had been said in their millions, the British Army was gathering its strength for what would become the Battle of Havrincourt. Amongst the soldiers was Wilfred Owen, an excoriating critic of the war who would come to be considered as the greatest of the First World War poets – but who would not survive the two months of the war that remained. A hundred years on, there can hardly have been a more appropriate time for the Proms to stage Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, his profoundly pacifist conflation of the Latin Mass with some of Owen’s most agonising poetry.

Peter Oundjian © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Peter Oundjian
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Throughout the War Requiem, the two elements are juxtaposed or interwoven. Britten uses Owen’s words to evoke the horrors of war, while his use of the Latin liturgy is focused on the yearning for eternal rest, in contrast to the exposition of God’s glory of Mozart or the shock and awe of Verdi. Leading the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, their adult and junior choruses and the Huddersfield Choral Society, Peter Oundjian made a forceful case for Britten’s work – but one in which the element of eternal calm came through with considerably greater strength than the treatment of the horrors of war.

From the outset, Oundjian kept the heart rate low. The opening “Requiem aeternam” from the choir is marked pp: in this performance, it was barely above the threshold of audibility. Chorus master Gregory Batsleer chose an almost spoken whisper, a choice that was made often throughout the evening. It might have been an effective style in a smaller hall, but I question whether the Royal Albert Hall was the right place to use this. For sure, when combined with Britten’s sparse orchestration and some beautiful sounds coming from woodwind and brass, the choir created a marvellously calming atmosphere, but a certain level of detail was inevitably lost. In contrast, the sound of the RSNO Junior Chorus rang out with clarity and brilliance, conducted by Anne Murphy and singing from high above in the upper gallery.

Peter Oundjian, Allan Clayton and Russell Braun with the RSNO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Peter Oundjian, Allan Clayton and Russell Braun with the RSNO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The two male soloists were Allan Clayton and Russell Braun, representing British and German soldiers respectively. Clayton sings in a glorious tenor which comes close to matching Peter Pears for pure beauty. Braun’s voice is elegant, almost suave, with perfect elocution. For a great deal of Owen’s poetry and Britten’s exquisite vocal writing, the voices were admirably suited. But there are key passages which demand more than beauty or elegance. The first solo passage, “Anthem for doomed youth” has words like “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle” which drip with venom: they cry out for an edge and a vehemence which Clayton lacked. Braun sang of the bugles “saddening the evening air” with beguiling intimacy. But “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” needs something quite different: at the end of the cosy relation of the story of Abraham and Isaac, Owen provides a horrifying twist: “But the old man would not so, but slew his son, and half the seed of Europe, one by one”. It’s a couplet that needs to shock, but which, in this rendering, left me cold. The duet between Clayton and Braun was effective in its mockery of the grim reaper: “Oh, Death was never enemy of ours”.

Of the three soloists, the one who shone consistently was soprano Erin Wall, singing from a higher position close to the choir and making every entry count. Wall accomplished the tricky task of singing beautifully, but also adding some grit to the oyster, commanding our attention as well as allowing us to enjoy the voice.

Britten uses a substantial orchestra, but for the most part, only a few instruments at a time. This gives much opportunity for the wind players to impress, and the RSNO brass and woodwind did just that. The fanfare before “Tuba mirum” was one of the high points of the evening, not just a single Judgement Day trumpet, but a whole assembly of military brass calling and responding to each other.

The close, Owen’s eerie “Strange meeting”, again lacked impact on its punch line – the point where the ghost of the German soldiers declares that “I am the enemy you killed, my friend”. But both men delivered “Let us sleep now” with immense beauty and calm, giving way to Wall and the choirs to bring us to a steady close a performance that may not have gripped throughout, but which must surely have left everyone in the audience in a state of reflection on the horrors of war, a timely reminder in an era when nationalist tensions are mounting.

***11