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2011.10.09 & 11 – Britten War Requiem, Barbican, London

Britten ‘War Requiem’

9, 11 October 2011
Barbican, London

Gianandrea Nosea, conductor
Sabine Cvilak, soprano
Ian Bostridge, tenor
Simon Keenlyside, baritone
London Symphony Chorus
Eltham College Choir Trebles
London Symphony Orchestra

2011 10 09 War Requiem Barbican 08

‘…it is difficult to imagine an account that would better deliver in terms of emotional heft and musical quality.’ Classicalsource

Change of conductor

Due to recent health concerns, Sir Colin Davis has asked to reduce the number of his concert engagements with the LSO this autumn, and will therefore no longer be conducting the performances of Britten’s War Requiem on 9 and 11 October. We are delighted that Gianandrea Noseda, Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, has agreed to step in to conduct in his place.

Photo Gallery

What the critics say

Alexandra Coghlan, The Arts Desk, 10 October 2011

Nearly fifty years have passed since Britten’s War Requiem premiered at the consecration of the reconstructed Coventry Cathedral in May 1962. The intervening years have seen British military campaigns in the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and while the process and practice of war has changed beyond recognition, the horror that the Pacifist Britten perceived so acutely remains the same. With Remembrance Sunday approaching, it would be hard to imagine a more vivid act of commemoration and testimony than the performance the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus delivered at the Barbican last night.

Bringing together the vernacular texts of Wilfred Owen with the Latin Requiem Mass, full orchestra with a chamber ensemble, and balancing the chorus with a distant choir of boys voices, the War Requiem is a babel of textures and tones, a polyphonic clamour of contraries.

Last weekend the impact an unusual orchestral configuration can have on the listening experience was brought home in the topsy-turvy setup of Boulez’s Pli Selon Pli; last night again, with the solo double bass out in front and a harp squatting uneasily among the central strings, we experienced the same alienating sensation, the familiar orchestral textures shaded with unexpected colours. Playing off the comforting security of the best-beloved British oratorio against a unique structure and lingering tritonal disquiet, Britten’s Requiem pays homage to tradition while never becoming assimilated into nostalgia.

Stepping in to replace the initially advertised Sir Colin Davis, Gianandrea Noseda left his audience little room to imagine the performance that might have been. Without the intrusion of an interval, he sustained a dramatic trajectory that grew inexorably out of the leaps of the opening string theme into the climactic ensemble cries of “libera me”. Calibrating his drama with absolute control, the impact of its sparing moments of frenzy – the insistent machine-gun assault of the Dies Irae from chorus and brass, the groans and moans of tormented souls in the Libera Me, and above all the Bosch-like clamour of the “confutatis maledictis” – were devastating.

The LSO, recalling their superb performance of Elgar’s The Kingdom at the Barbican earlier this year, were by turns brutal and beautiful, their brass cynical and sardonic in the Dies Irae and triumphal in the Sanctus, the chamber ensemble supporting the solo passages in an intimate and unsettling dialogue.

Matching them for precision were the London Symphony Chorus, who created two entirely distinct sound-worlds from the desperate, barely-spoken urgency of the pianissimo “Requiem aeternam” and the affirmative arrival of the closing pianissimo of the Kyrie. Britten’s habitual boys voices came courtesy of the always excellent Eltham College Choir, stealing into the texture from the back of the gallery. Impeccably enunciated and projected throughout, it was their hushed chorus interpolation into the Abraham and Isaac episode that lingers.

Ian Bostridge, with some 50 War Requiems under his belt, has an authority in this repertoire that seems determined never to become security. Ever more willing to take himself and his audience to a place of ugliness and extremity, his daring catches the breath in the same way as Owen’s cruel images. Spare and bleak, Bostridge was at his best in the Agnus Dei, among the controlled horrors of “At a Calvary near the Ancre”. Rather more stoic in approach, Simon Keenlyside offered the earth to Bostridge’s flame, anchoring us in the grim plod of war. Soprano Sabina Cvilak – distant among the choir – offered airy commentary, too disengaged in the Lacrimosa which had a little too much of the Kurt Weill about it, though her “Rex tremendae” was blistering in its attack.

The War Requiem launches a season of English language oratorios at the Barbican, and the next few months will see A Child of Our Time, Belshazzar’s Feast and The Dream of Gerontius performed by a variety of British orchestras. The special place the War Requiem occupies among these 20th century classics was reflected in last night’s sold-out hall, and the concert will unusually receive a repeat performance on Tuesday. On the strength of this supreme rendition it will prove a worthy rival even to the enticements of Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra across town.

Ben Hogwood, Classicalsource, 10 October 2011

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem will be fifty years old in January next year. Its relevance remains as keen and uncomfortable as a reflection of today’s world as it did in 1962. A number of anniversaries could easily have been marked by this performance, starting a series of major English choral works at the Barbican Centre, but perhaps most pertinent is the tenth since troops from the West arrived in Afghanistan. This performance, in tandem with the second performance, will be preserved by LSO Live, and it is difficult to imagine an account that would better deliver in terms of emotional heft and musical quality.

A crucial element lies in the preparatory work, getting the performing forces set up in appropriate relation to each other as directed by the composer. Barbican Hall, not the most flexible of venues, was nonetheless used to great effect. The boys’ choir was positioned up in the Gallery, while Sabina Cvilak stood front-centre of the sizeable London Symphony Chorus. Ian Bostridge and Simon Keenlyside were next to Gianandrea Noseda, who presided over the chamber orchestra of twelve, its personnel plucked from LSO principals.

The London Symphony Chorus was quite simply superb, finding full capacity in the fiery ‘Dies Irae’ passages, where the basses hissed their “confutatis maledictis” with barely concealed menace. In ‘Libera Me’ feelings ran equally high, the power of Britten’s portrayal of the end of days harnessed with an appropriate loss of control for which the composer was surely aiming. Yet perhaps the most affecting choral passages were the quietest, specifically those closing the ‘Requiem aeternam’, ‘Dies Irae’ and ‘Libera Me’ sections, where Britten asks for the quietest possible dynamic levels at a low register. These were wonderfully sonorous, the music opening out into a calming F major on each occasion.

That these closing utterances were so effective was in no small part due to Noseda, conducting instead of Sir Colin Davis, for whom these performances were intended. He offered a view of the work that kept the fast passages moving, and the ‘Dies Irae’ took off at quite a lick, the thrilling brass fanfares passing around the superbly marshalled trumpets and trombones. Where the conductor really excelled, however, was in his control of the chamber forces accompanying Ian Bostridge and Simon Keenlyside. There was little to no join between the choral ‘Requiem’ settings and the strange, often terrible Wilfred Owen poetry set so keenly by Britten. Each chamber orchestra member played with great intensity, clarinettist Andrew Marriner offering a memorable counterpoint to Keenlyside during the setting of ‘The End’. The contribution of percussionist Neil Percy ranged from the incisive report of the snare drum to rolling timpani depicting the “great gun towering toward Heaven” leading to the climax of the ‘Dies Irae’.

This was also Keenlyside’s finest moment, full-bodied of tone but latent with horror, and represented a considerable step on from ‘Bugles sang’, where he initially appeared edgy. Bostridge was similarly affecting in his delivery, though he was at pains to communicate even more directly with the audience, fixing the stalls with a stare as he delivered the uncomfortable and often confrontational tales of war. ‘What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?’ rang out as a cutting retort to the Requiem text, while in the bittersweet ‘Agnus Dei’ he found a beautiful sense of give and take as the harmony oscillated softly between B minor and C major. Bostridge feels this work within his bones – he sang “futility” with a careful but pronounced use of flatness to the pitch, finding more stress to short phrases such as “fatuous sunbeams”. The two male soloists were well matched, their duet as Abraham and Isaac interweaving seamlessly, while in the recitatives of ‘Strange Meeting’ time stood still, the awful countenance of enemies revealed to each other and somehow finding friendship, if not resolution.

Sabina Cvilak was also fully within Britten’s idiom, singing from within the heart of the chorus, and floating effortlessly above as she sang ‘Lacrimosa’, recovering from a brief moment where she lost her bearings. Only in the louder music was the balance occasionally compromised, the soprano voice less inclined to ring out over that of the chorus. The boys of Eltham College Choir deserve great praise for their contribution, singing from memory with great clarity and diction, their words needing no accompanying text for understanding. The beginning of the ‘Offertorium’ in particular was crisply delivered.

At the end Noseda modestly gave the podium to the soloists and choral directors. The conductor deserved a huge amount of the credit for overseeing an account that fully succeeded in asking the difficult questions that Owen’s poetry demands, channelled through music where emotion is never far from the surface. War Requiem’s relevance for the 21st-century looks set to grow still further with every conflict, supported as it is by compositional techniques and structures that amaze afresh with every performance, of which this one was undoubtedly amongst the finest it has ever received.

Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 11 October 2011

Four Stars

The London Symphony Orchestra and its chorus are about to visit New York to give three concerts at the Lincoln Centre. Large-scale choral music features prominently, with Colin Davis repeating the performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis he gave at the Proms and Gianandrea Noseda conducting Britten’s War Requiem, with soprano Sabina Cvilak, tenor Ian Bostridge and baritone Simon Keenlyside as the soloists. The same lineup, with the offstage addition of the trebles of Eltham College Choir, gave this Barbican performance too.

It was a stirring if not moving occasion, more memorable for its choral climaxes in the liturgical element of the work than the pathos and reflective beauty of the settings of Wilfred Owen’s poetry. Noseda stage-manages musical drama quite wonderfully, and with the London Symphony Chorus on secure and clear form, the unleashing of the Dies Irae, the brassy triumphalism of the Hosannas in the Sanctus, and the sense of panic at the mention of the Last Judgment in the Libera Me were all perfectly judged, even if ideally the War Requiem needs a bit more acoustic space than the Barbican can offer.

Cvilak added an impressive hieratic incisiveness to the choral set pieces too, but her male colleagues were occasionally more problematic. Fine singer though he is, Keenlyside didn’t always have the dark-toned weight that some of Britten’s baritone writing (originally tailored for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) really implies – the “Be slowly lifted up” solo in the Dies Irae needs a more implacable sound than Keenlyside’s, for instance. Bostridge’s refined, very English sound was appropriate, yet he inflected the vocal lines in such a mannered way that their musical and verbal sense was not always communicated. Overall, though, the performance will be a very high‑class export.

Ivan Hewitt, The Telegraph, 12 October 2011

Four Stars

Britten’s War Requiem is a hard piece to approach with objective ears. As the biggest public statement of Britain’s leading composer, written to symbolise post-war rebirth and reconciliation, the piece was loaded with hopes and expectations which still linger almost 50 years on. They’re encouraged by the work itself, which strives so insistently for profundity.

It’s full of loaded musical symbolism – the tolling bells, the constant repetition of the “devil in music” chord, the “innocent” boys’ voices. The interweaving of Wilfrid Owen’s passionately anti-war poems with the Latin text of the Requiem Mass is a brilliant stroke, but it’s hard not to feel the juxtaposition is more than a little manipulative.

All this put me on my guard at this performance from the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. If I wasn’t entirely won over to the piece, I certainly thrilled to the way it was presented.

Perhaps it helped that the conductor Gianandrea Noseda is Italian, and so less burdened by the work’s status as a national monument. He and the LSO Chorus made the big choral settings of the Latin text amazingly vivid, the offbeat rhythms of the Dies Irae flung out with huge force. The chorus could be moving, too, as in the moment in the Dies Irae when the sopranos ask “Who shall intercede for us?”

The orchestral playing was also hugely impressive. The brass players of the LSO caught the menacing military undertow of the music without exaggerating it, and the chamber sonorities of the Owen settings were beautifully delicate. Above us in the gallery the boys of Eltham College Choir were lusty and confident, though their interjections lacked the sense of coming “from afar” which only a big space like a cathedral can give.

Against this sacred backdrop, the settings of Owen’s war poems are meant to strike an ironic note. It’s a delicate balancing act, which the duo of baritone Simon Keenlyside and tenor Ian Bostridge only intermittently achieved. Keenlyside lacked the gravelly, bleak quality which the words sometimes need, and Bostridge often seemed overwrought. But perhaps it’s unfair to ask for ironic understatement, when much of the music is so overwrought itself.

At these moments my doubts came flooding back, but they were stilled — to a degree — by the bleak and comfortless final choral phrase. It was beautifully moulded, and seemed finally to capture an emotional truth without self-consciously striving for it.

Gavin Plumley, Entartete Music blog, 12 October 2011

I confess to being nonplussed by Britten’s War Requiem. There’s something artificial about the piece, as it slides queasily from Requiem Mass into Wilfred Owen setting. The endless tolling of bells, the way the music is locked in a tritone, all amounts to a long drawn-out statement of the obvious. And I’m not a Britten cynic. Yet despite my suspicions, I couldn’t fail to be moved by last night’s performance at the Barbican. With the LSO on commanding form under Gianandrea Noseda and a clutch of singers in remarkable voice, it almost began to convince me.

Taking the parts, rather than the sum, the War Requiem is much more persuasive. Britten knows his poetry and the Wilfred Owen settings are incredibly moving. Both Simon Keenlyside and Ian Bostridge proved superb narrators of their poetic pity. Keenlyside’s introspective, rich baritone contrasted well with Bostridge’s skittish acidity, perfect in this repertoire. As the soprano soloist, Sabina Cvilak is given a more punishing task; the settings of the mass proper often fail to ignite. She is a cipher rather than an emotional agent within the work, though she charted the vocal twists and turns with ease.

The choral singing was the soloists’ equal, with the London Symphony Chorus galloping across tortuous terrain. Occasionally blurry diction can be overlooked due to the sheer power and precision of their singing. The boys choir, eerie harbingers of life (and death), sounded from far away in a balcony. Sung with verve and gentle barb by the excellent Eltham College trebles, they completed a sterling vocal performance from soloists and choir alike. At the helm, Noseda (stepping in for Colin Davis) commanded these vast forces with panache. And the LSO responded with great sweep. Superb soloist work within the chamber orchestra and tight ensemble playing from the full band made for bold instrumental delivery.

But despite these amazing efforts, Noseda cannot make this disparate work coalesce. The ‘Offertorium’ fares best, but the episodic passages of the ‘Libera me’ and ‘Dies irae’ often feel slack. Having been given the opportunity to set either secular or sacred texts for his Coventry commission, Britten chose both. But I wonder at the wisdom of his choice. The care he lavishes on Owen’s remarkable verse is lacking from the manic writing of the Mass. And texts such as ‘Kyrie eleison’ or ‘Pie Jesu’ are carelessly rushed through. So intent is he on creating his own shape within the original liturgy, that only in ‘Strange Meeting’ does the impetus for mixing the two really work. With Keenlyside and Bostridge’s final statements of ‘Let us sleep now’ weaving through the hall, I was impressed and moved for the first time. It was a sterling performance of a dubious piece; it made me want to hear it again, which I suppose is a start.

Paul Driver, The Times, 16.10.2011

It was an invigorating musical week, in which Britten’s largest nondramatic work, the War Requiem, given by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Gianandrea Noseda at the Barbican, was followed by Bruckner’s Symphony No 5, played by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under its illustrious founder-conductor, Claudio Abbado, at the Festival Hall. A third grand opus, Debussy’s Preludes for piano, was presented by Cedric Tiberghien at Wigmore Hall on the third of these consecutive evenings: London’s main classical spaces each creating a vivid sense of occasion; or, rather, occasions, for the first two events were repeated. Before the Bruckner on Monday came Schumann’s Piano Concerto, with Mitsuko Uchida. The War Requiem, 100 minutes long, stood alone.

It is always likely to. This overwhelming statement, interspersing the Latin of the Requiem Mass with the English of first world war poems by Wilfred Owen, is not only a dazzlingly integrated structure, but a kind of rite, beginning and ending in tense, communal quiet. Though it was long sneered at by those unable to accept the use, in 1962, of brazen tonality and modality, I cannot imagine any musical person sitting through the Barbican performances and not being shaken. If ever a work spoke directly, it is this one, though the audience probably needs to be Englishspeaking to feel the full power. So moving are the Owen settings, and so laceratingly contextualised (how inevitable their juxtaposition with the Requiem text, but what a stroke of genius!), I seriously wondered how the soloists could handle such explosive material without falling apart on stage. It is a formidable test of artistry, and that of the executants on Britten’s recording, the English tenor Peter Pears, the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, hovers permanently over the score.

Yet the Barbican trio could scarcely be bettered. Ian Bostridge, Simon Keenlyside and Sabina Cvilak not only rose to the technical challenges with effortless eloquence, they were palpably alert to the moral dimension of their roles. The men, who sing in English — except for the tenor’s brief but shattering soft intonation of “Dona nobis pacem” towards the end of the work, its structural pivot — are shouldering an utterance central to us all. It is the definitive objection to war, the recognition of killing’s futility, the cry for empathy and love that we must always come back to. One felt their acceptance of this burden at the same time as one relished superbly characterful interpretations, in line with the original ones, yet fresh and for our time. Keenlyside’s “Be slowly lifted up” and Bostridge’s “One ever hangs where shelled roads part”, were heart-stopping individual masterpieces of sonorous severity, electrifying diction. Together — in the caustic, no, savage “So Abram rose”, or the assuaging final transport of “It seemed that out of battle I escaped” — they became an expression of the common face of humanity. Noseda controlled the huge forces — a chamber orchestra within the main one, children (Eltham College Choir trebles) and chamber organ radiant on the balcony — with a brilliant dexterity yet manifest warmth of understanding. Each tutti climax was somehow more magnificent than the last. It is deeply satisfying that Britten’s grandest work should be his greatest — an uncannily coherent synthesis of the things, both musical and human, that burningly concerned him. …

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jane October 12, 2011 at 10:31 am

I was at Sunday’s concert and must agree with these great reviews. It was a truly amazing experience. The orchestra and choirs were superb, but above all, I was deeply moved by Simon and Ian Bostridge – what a wonderful performance these two outstanding singers gave – their vocal technique, depth of intelligence and exceptional musicianship would be hard to match and, in my opinion, almost impossible to surpass. When it was over, all too soon, I just wanted to hear it all over again…straightaway! I can’t wait for the CD.

Sheila Brighten October 11, 2011 at 11:44 pm

I really have to agree with these outstanding reviews, having just returned from the Tuesday performance of the War Requiem. The music, choirs and above Ian and Simon rocked me to the core. Superb is too tame a word. I could listen to it over and over again, without in anyway getting too familiar with it. A true privilege to have been in the audience.

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