The Boston Symphony gave the first American performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem 59 years ago this July, 15 months after the world premiere at Coventry. So it is not surprising that the orchestra programmed it to mark the 60th anniversary of that world premiere. Little did they know how timely and relevant that decision would turn out to be. A program note dedicated these performances “in the spirit of peace and justice” to “the people of Ukraine and all those resisting the invasion of their sovereign country”.

Ian Bostridge, Matthias Goerne, Amanda Majeski and Sir Antonio Pappano in War Requiem
© Hilary Scott

In 1963, Cold War tensions made the engagement of a Russian soprano impossible. Phyllis Curtin sang the part and the only foreign singer was the Finnish baritone, Tom Krause. Despite the invasion of Ukraine, the orchestra intended to go forward with its plan to follow Britten’s casting of Russian, British and German soloists. This time, they were foiled by pregnancy not politics, and  Albina Shagimuratova had to withdraw. American soprano, Amanda Majeski, stepped in to make a felicitous BSO debut. Her voice has a burnished  timbre which brightens as it rises, but without thinning. It glowed even warmer against the whiter, brighter sound of the estimable Tanglewood Festival Chorus, grounding the ethereal in the earthly in the same way Wilfred Owen’s poetry anchors the abstractions of the surrounding liturgy in the bedrock of the present. A similar contrast marked the two dead soldiers with Ian Bostridge’s voice a ghostly, haunting presence and Matthias Goerne’s, animated and earthy. The vocal profile of the performance was further enriched by placing the angelic children’s chorus in the corridor behind the closed doors of the second balcony, left, creating a numinous sense of distance. Only once, during the Domine Jesu, did they sing with the doors open, and to dramatic effect.

Matthias Goerne, Sir Antonio Pappano, Amanda Majeski and Ian Bostridge backstage
© Hilary Scott

Shaping this all like a sculptor working clay were the expressive hands of Sir Antonio Pappano, molding a dramatic yet intimate performance, powerful, and moving. He gave the score space to breathe, allowing its subtleties to tell, and knew when to let loose and when to hold back, best illustrated by the tentative, but threatening utterances of the Dies irae, building to the barrage of timpani and brass in the Tuba mirum. With each return, the Dies irae itself grew in intensity and ferocity. Though Britten highlights the contrast between the liturgical and the poetic by having a chamber orchestra accompany the male soloists, Pappano succeeded in creating a musical narrative tying the two episodic threads together until they became one in transcendent fashion, when all the soloists and both choruses joined together for the first and only time in the concluding In paradisum,. This antiphon, rarely set by other composers, traditionally accompanies the procession bearing the coffin out of the church and to the graveyard and expresses the hope that the soul of the faithful departed will be welcomed by the angels and saints to Paradise.

In paradisum is couched in the subjunctive. It is a wish, not a certainty. Though the final words are, Requiescat in pacem, Amen, Britten offers no hint of consolation and his conclusion, like Verdi’s, remains open-ended. In a world continually riven by war, how can anyone rest in peace, especially its victims? That question hung in the air as Pappano froze on the podium, holding the silence.