Britten: War Requiem

Rebeka, Bostridge, Iversen, Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Denève

Usher Hall, 6 May 2010 4.5 stars

Ian Bostridge

Considering the enormous scale of Britten's War Requiem, it is surprisingly something of a fixture in the concert hall. Tonight's performance by the RSNO is their third of the twenty-first century, while tenor Ian Bostridge has in excess of sixty performances to his name. With an excellent pre-concert talk from Frikki Walker (Director of Music at Glasgow's St Mary Cathedral), and an unusually lucid and nuanced programme note—contributed by Bostridge—there was a sense of every sinew being strained to show Britten's work in its best light.

Somehow Britten was able to inscribe this solidarity into his score. Goodwill has attended it all along the way, since its first performance in 1962 at the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral, built to replace the 14th century building destroyed by German bombs in 1940. Through his network of warm relations with continental musicians, Britten's plan was for the tenor Peter Pears, the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya to take the solo roles, symbolizing the peaceful reconciliation of old enemies. It happens that Mstislav Rostropovich, another of his circle, came to prepare a performance with the Orchestre de Paris in the early 1990s, during which a young Stéphane Denève accompanied choral rehearsals at the piano.

With the passage of time, though, the specificity of the work's original 'meaning' has dissipated, a process that brings with it an exposure to the kind of critical reflection that Stravinsky, famously, complained was forbidden at the time of its premiere. Stravinsky was unhappy about the social pressure to conform in agreeing to the work's merits—ironically, because this pressure was little different (except in scale) from the very social climate that sanctioned and sustained the First World War. Ironic, not least, because Britten himself refused to succumb when those same pressures returned in the Second World War, declaring himself a conscientious objector.

Central to Britten's 'meaning' is the presence of Wilfred Owen's poetry, interpolated into the Latin Missa pro defunctis. In a way, as Bostridge points out, this draws the interpretative focus of the War Requiem towards the first, rather than the second of the two wars—and away from the composer. Britten's experience of the former was largely of aftershock and social reconfiguration—it wasn't about him in the personal way that characterised his experience of the latter.

Perhaps this strategy freed him to focus on explicitly musical problems. One can point to a previous setting of Owen, in the Nocturne, where he renders the surface of 'The Kind Ghosts' with exquisite sensitivity while leaving from his score any sense of the trenchant critique that lies behind Owen's polished façade.

The much larger scale of the War Requiem—with its three semantic layers articulated by the two male soloists accompanied by a chamber ensemble; the soprano, full orchestra and chorus; and boys' choir accompanied by chamber organ—poses a much larger compositional challenge. The general feeling one receives, though, is that Britten allows the texts to marshal his musical ideas. His tremendous skill at responding in this manner cannot wholly mask a certain deficit in the deep-level organization.

If unremitting passion is the key to carrying the work off in performance, then Denève is assuredly the man you want to see on the podium. In other readings, a second conductor has taken separate charge of the chamber ensemble, but Denève took full control. A video-link enabled the boys' choir, located remotely behind the doors of the grand circle, to make their ethereal contribution with excellent coordination. (I assume that Christopher Bell, junior chorus director, relayed the cues, but the arrangement produced exactly the desired result.)

Among the soloists, one might want to complain that Marina Rebeka, located behind the orchestra, had difficulty projecting over their full volume—especially with the glorious weight of the chorus behind her—but her warmth and poignant lyricism reached deep for expressive communion to tremendous effect in the less frantic passages. It is the fate of the baritone, perhaps, to be overshadowed by the tenor. Nevertheless, Audun Iversen gave a distinguished and effective account, bringing to it a certain operatic dignity. Ian Bostridge, his part simultaneously channeling Peter Pears and Wilfred Owen, similarly suited his task visually as well as vocally. Not surprisingly, he brings great intelligence and subtlety to his interpretation, along with a range of expressive colour—and occasional flamboyance—that eclipses his illustrious predecessor in the role.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Ian Bostridge


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