Benjamin Britten’s monumental War Requiem was commissioned to mark the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral that was built after the original 14th-century structure had been destroyed in a World War II bombing raid. As both a pacifist and conscientious objector, Britten rose enthusiastically to the award of the official commission, which gave him complete artistic freedom.

Kent Nagano
© Antoine Saito

In 1961-62, he created a work that combined Latin texts of the traditional Requiem Mass for the Dead with poems by Wilfred Owen, a young British soldier who had been killed in action on 4th November 1918, just a week before the Armistice. While virtually unknown as a poet at the time of his death, Owen has since been widely acknowledged as a foundational war poet: “Voices of boys were by the river-side. Sleep mother’d them; and left the twilight sad. The shadow of the morrow weighed on men.”

The War Requiem includes compelling depictions of the Last Judgment along with harrowing testimonies and descriptions of desperation in the trenches, and it develops into what Mervyn Cooke cited as “apocalyptic proportions”. While the orchestra accompanies the more intimate settings of the English poetry, the soprano, choirs and orchestra are used to underscore the Latin sections.

At the Tonhalle Zürich performance, we had three superb soloists: American soprano, Georgia Jarman; British tenor, Ian Bostridge; and Canadian baritone, Russell Braun. They were supported by the full Tonhalle Orchestra and two choirs: the men and women of the Zürcher Sing-Akademie, and the boys’ Zürcher Sängerknaben. Given such numbers, it took some time for all the choirs to take their places on stage, where they made a kind of parenthesis around the musicians themselves. But then, for some 85 minutes following, the huge configuration of musicians and singers under the direction of conductor Kent Nagano unravelled both the horrors and the graces of redemption on a dramatic scale. Nagano showed himself an athletic and exacting conductor over the requiem’s full duration, despite the tremendous number of moving parts on the stage.

In the newly-renovated Tonhalle, staging was also used to advantage. Jarman, for example, sang down from the hall’s right balcony, almost like a Juliet in disguise. Dressed all in white, she seemed a glittering gemstone; her voice, which carried the Latin text of the mass, varying between the angelic and the rousing. Bostridge’s performance not only showed perfect command of diction and tonal nuance, but also his uncanny ability to modulate his voice even over a single word, sometimes expressive enough to even make a brave man cry. The final words the tenor sings, “Dona nobis pacem” (Grant us peace), was the great work’s message in a nutshell. 

Similarly, Braun’s hearty and vibrant baritone gave another emotive dimension, one awesome, if not sometimes confrontational. When he sang, “But when thy spell be cast complete and whole, May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul,” the audience might well have wanted to take cover. Overall the soloists’ emotive interjections made the piece just as passionate and human as it was filled with the horrors of war’s machinations. The overriding message was the tenor’s simple wisdom: “But they who love / Lay down their life, they do not hate.” To any who have lost those they love in wartime, some consolation, indeed.