War Requiem was composed in 1961 for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral – newly rebuilt following its destruction in the Second World War. It famously inserts nine of Wilfred Owen’s war poems into the text of the traditional Latin mass, often adding an ironic comment on the sentiments of that text. For the 1962 première Britten planned to engage soloists from three of the combatant nations, Britain (Peter Pears, tenor), Germany (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone), and Russia (Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano – though the Soviet regime prevented her participation). In something of the same spirit, this performance was sung by German baritone Benjamin Appl, who was mentored by Fischer-Dieskau, and Andrew Staples, who was the first holder of the Peter Pears scholarship at the RCM. The boys’ choir combined choristers from Westminster Cathedral and the Staats- und Domchor Berlin.

Benjamin Appl © Lars Borges | Sony Classical
Benjamin Appl
© Lars Borges | Sony Classical

Britten said he designed War Requiem “for a big reverberant acoustic, and that is where it sounds best”. Westminster Cathedral enabled us to hear exactly what Britten meant from the outset, when the portentous plea for eternal rest from the 200 strong main chorus seemed so cavernous, and was succeeded by a magical transition to the distant boys’ chorus set far back behind the main choir, their “Te decet hymnus” sounding symbolically (and almost literally), like an angelic choir from the beyond. Soprano Sally Matthews, singing from the pulpit, sang her angular line in the Liber scriptus with its wide leaps with impressive strength and accuracy, easily dominating the large space of the nave. And of course it was especially effective to hear the line “One ever hangs where shelled roads part” with the vast hanging crucifix with its portrait of Christ dominating the scene behind.

The Owen poems are given to tenor and baritone soloists and accompanied by twelve players forming a chamber orchestra (all members of the Philharmonia). Andrew Staples was moving indeed in Futility (“Move him into the sun”), with a legato line even Pears might have envied, and sang the question “Was it for this the clay grew tall?” in a touching beseeching manner that told us the answer. Benjamin Appl has won high praise for his accomplishment in Lieder, but still had no problem commanding this least intimate of venues. It is hard to imagine “Bugles sang, saddening the evening air” being better sung, and his forte singing in “Be slowly lifted up thou long black arm/Great towering gun” had the stentorian note of protest at “that arrogance which needs thy harm” but without any hardening of tone. Tenor and baritone combined very well too in “Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death” and in the poem retelling – indeed reversing – the Abraham and Isaac story.

The Bach Choir, which has a history in this work dating back to the 1963 legendary first recording with the composer, were splendid, even though their distance from the conductor, and the shallow rake of their temporary choir stalls, must have made co-ordination a challenge at times. David Hill conducted all the forces, chamber orchestra included, with a large baton and large movements which held things together even in the most complex passages. Above all he conveyed the mighty sweep of the work, even with all its shifts of focus between chamber forces, full choir and distant boys’ voices. Although the acoustic swallowed some detail in the biggest moments such as the Dies irae, the impact was still terrific, the sheer aural spectacle entirely appropriate to the enduring importance of the subject; mighty matters at times demanding mighty sounds.

There was an added novelty. The performance was interspersed with monologues based on wartime reportage and letters to loved ones. Aisling Loftus read, with some stumbles, from Tolstoy’s War and Peace; journalist Christina Lamb read from her dramatic account of being an embedded reporter in Helmand; and Alex Jennings read, quite superbly, from a family memoir of the Coventry bombing. This was not a successful idea. No matter what was chosen or how good the readings, they interrupted the carefully planned musical sequence of Britten’s scheme; they add another layer, that of speech, to an already multi-layered experience; it made the universal local, when great art aims to do the reverse; and no further words on slaying are needed when one hears the lines that close Owen's retelling of the sacrificial offering of the boy Isaac, in which the angel tells Abraham to offer a ram of pride instead of his son:

“But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

But if those insertions slightly held up the impetus of the score’s cumulative power, in the end they could not dilute the overwhelming compassion engendered by a performance as fine as this one of War Requiem.