MSO: Britten’s War Requiem

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Published: 13th June, 2015

To further commemorate the centenary of Anzac and “The war to end all wars”, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra presented a poignant nine-minute work by an Australian composer and an outstanding rendering of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Originally performed for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed in a World War II bombing raid, the latter has come to epitomise the voice of pacifism.

Programmed as a prelude to Britten’s devastating critique of war and its horrors, Frederick Septimus Kelly’s 1915 Elegy for String Orchestra “In memoriam Rupert Brooke” draws upon the mood and musical language of the English Pastoral. Written in 1915, it was inspired by Brooke’s death and the composer’s participation in his burial on the Greek Island of Skyros as their battalion prepared to land at Gallipoli. Kelly was killed on the Somme while leading an attack the following year. (Although the Australian Chamber Orchestra included the work in their recent Reflections on Gallipoli program, this was its first performance by the MSO.)

In this gently melancholy piece for strings and harp, the MSO players under Sir Andrew Davis gave a tender account of questioning exchanges between upper and lower strings and concertmaster Eoin Andersen added a restrained note of wistful longing in several passages for solo violin. An appealing and accessible work, with moments of lush, surging string tone, it might have been a candidate for the latest Swoon 100 had it been more familiar. This was its first performance by the MSO.

For many, Britten’s War Requiem fulfilled his hope that “It’ll make people think a bit”; it also made people feel strongly and members of the audience responded in a variety of ways. By the end of Thursday night’s performance, several people from one section of the Stalls had walked out while others were mopping away the tears. It would seem that one of the most important choral works of the twentieth century still evokes mixed reactions. It was certainly not the quality of the performance that some patrons would have objected to. In the past, Britten’s pacifism, homosexuality and musical innovation have all aroused indignation and/or antipathy. At least the second of these factors would not have proved a problem.

On the title page of his score Britten quoted Wilfred Owen: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity … All a poet can do today is warn.” There is no doubt that Owen’s gut-wrenching poetry and the way Britten juxtaposes the Requiem Mass against the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac to comment on the Church’s complicity in the horrors of war may have been too confronting for some. Britten’s work is designed to pack the kind of punch that will leave an audience reeling.

The music itself is also confronting. Britten’s employs the tritone as a recurring motif serving to unify the whole work. Tubular bells clang out a death knell, not merely as a solemn tolling to mark death but also as a dissonant reminder of the ugliness of war. It is a deliberate interruption of thoughts of heroism and consolation, even as the voices of the German baritone and British tenor wind around each other in the “Let us sleep now…” and the chorus intones the final “Requiescant in pace”. It is profoundly moving, all the more so because of the emotional intensity and musical strength of these performances.

Those who have grown up with Britten’s 1963 Decca recording, featuring the soloists for whom Britten wrote, could not help but be struck by how closely the MSO soloists resembled Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Galina Vishnevskaya in vocal quality. Ian Bostridge may have a more beautiful voice than Pears, but his diction is equally impeccable and his musicality and emotional commitment extraordinary. It is difficult to imagine a more commanding and “true” performance than Bostridge’s. “Move him into the sun” and “It seemed that out of battle I escaped” were imbued with an eloquence of a rare order.

German bass-baritone Dietrich Henschel was a perfect match. His voice blended with Bostridge’s in harmonious accord at key points while retaining its own brand of beauty and distinctive timbre. The reiterations of “Bugles sang” were among many telling moments of pathos and desolation.

Russian soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya is, understandably, much sought after as an outstanding exponent of the soprano solos in this work by major symphony orchestras around the world. Her voice has the weight and presence to ride easily over choral and orchestral forces in great arcs of luscious resonance. From her initial dramatic entrance in “Liber scriptus” her voice carried all the passion and ritualistic authority afforded by the Latin text, which is used for one of the three distinct groups for the work. Although positioned at the back of the orchestra, her voice was clearly audible even with boys, chorus and orchestra in full flight for the final “In paradisum”. Sitting at the front of the Balcony for the second performance, it was difficult to believe that her voice was not being assisted by amplification. It wasn’t. What is more, her svelte physique was proof that an enormous voice does not require a corresponding girth. Even more thrilling than her seismic vocal power was Pavlovskaya’s ability to achieve the most stunning controlled diminuendos at the ends of phrases.

In addition to first-rate soloists, the MSO Chorus and the National Boys Choir of Australia were truly impressive. Softer passages were so well blended and managed with such precise timing that it was like the murmur of one instrument that began and concluded the work. Passages of unaccompanied chorus work revealed an admirable ability to sustain pitch and vocal quality at all times. As the group accompanied by chamber organ, the boys sang from the back of the Balcony with exemplary discipline and skill.

The full orchestra and the chamber orchestra that accompanied the two male soloists gave of their excellent best, with the brass making a particularly fine contribution throughout the evening, most notably in the “Dies Irae”.

Sir Andrew Davis ensured that these were exceptionally powerful performances of an important masterpiece that still presents challenges for modern audiences. There appeared to be fewer members anxious to leave on the second night, but the passage in Owen’s text describing how Abraham “slew his son, – And half the seed of Europe, one by one” proved to be an exit trigger for some on both nights. It appeared that the sentiments expressed in the text rather Britten’s musical imagination might have been the issue.

Although this intense depiction of “The pity of war” may have proved a bridge too far for certain members of the audience, most responded with great enthusiasm to such masterful performances.

Heather Leviston attended two performances of Britten’s War Requiem at Hamer Hall, on June 11 and 12.

The picture is of soloist  Tatiana Pavlovkaya.