Britten's War Requiem - Music Review
When: June 11 & 12
Where: Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall
Written by: Frederick Septimus Kelly (Elegy), Benjamin Britten (Requiem)
Conducted by: Sir Andrew Davis
Performers: Ian Bostridge, Dietrich Henschel, Tatiana Pavlovskaya, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and National Boys Choir of Australia.
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) always programme relevant and exciting concerts for Melbournians, and Britten’s War Requiem is up there with the best of their programming. In recognition of the ANZAC celebrations that dominate 2015, War Requiem is a timely reminder that there is no glory in war.
Filling the Hamer Hall stage with two orchestras, a full male and female chorus, and having the Boys Choir up in the grand circle – so very appropriately (for this piece at least) known as ‘up in the god’s’ – the MSO have undertaken a massive event so appropriate for the task it has been set. Rarely will you see such a large conglomeration of double basses and percussion on one stage.
Ironically, the evening begins with the very gentle and mournful piece Elegy for String Orchestra ‘In Memorium Rupert Brooke’ composed by Australian soldier Frederick Septimus Kelly. I cannot explain the breathtaking awe that stirs the soul as you see more than a dozen violins being bowed at exactly the same time to emit a single note out of the silence.
Elegy is a literary term for a mournful poem and is usually a lament for the dead. Kelly composed this musical elegy in his mind at the burial of Brooke as the troops prepared for the Gallipoli landing in 1915, although it was not committed to paper until he was recuperating from injury a few months later. The music is gentle as it reminds us of his intention for passionate simplicity, echoing the sounds of rustling leaves in the olive trees of Greece, where the body was laid to rest.
After the elegy is complete the soloists for the War Requiem enter the stage. First enter Henschel (baritone) and Bostridge (tenor) who make their way to sit to the right of Sir Davis. Then we see Pavlovskaya make her way to the back, sitting near the percussion and male chorus. At first I thought this was slightly odd, but once the singing begins it becomes clear.
Pavlovskaya has a glorious voice – rich and powerful enough to reach the heavens and then keep going. Nothing in the orchestra can touch her. Henschel and Bostridge, whilst both vocally amazing, are just not powerful enough as vocalists to keep up with her.
One of the important roles of the conductor is to balance the power of the various musical elements in order to create a blend which is musical, meaningful, and clear. Sir Davis managed the vast array of elements with such a deft and skilful touch, it was almost as entrancing watching him as it was watching the performers. The slightest tweak of a finger and his commands were responded to with perfect precision. Under his guidance there was a full orchestra, a chamber orchestra, an organ, a full chorus, a boys choir, and three vocal soloists, yet he even managed to hold the audience applause at the end until it was the perfect and appropriate time (Britten did not actually want applause at the end of the piece).
Britten was commissioned to compose War Requiem to be performed at the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962. The original building, constructed in the 13th century, had been destroyed during WWII.
This was an interesting time for Britten. He had recently returned from travels in Asia and was beginning to explore different ways of creating his music. Beginning his career with a very traditional approach, Britten was keen to deconstruct the classical form. For example, his church parable Curlew River had been influenced by Noh theatre.
Britten was a pacifist so he did not want to glorify the war that had destroyed this magnificent building and taken so many lives. With that in mind he chose to use nine poems from the WWI poet Wilfred Owen, himself a man who began his career as a romantic but moved into experimental forms such as pararhyme, which we encounter in the ‘Libera Me’.
Britten sticks to the form of a requiem, with the work consisting of ‘Requiem Aeternam’, ‘Dies Irae’, ‘Offertorium’, ‘Sanctus’, ‘Agnus Dei’, and finishing with the ‘Libera Me’. The boys choir – placed so far away – come to us like the sound of angels, accompanied by the organ. These voices are meant to represent the heavenly. The chorus, the soprano and the full orchestra work together to represent the celebration of the mass on earth, whilst the baritone, tenor and chamber orchestra are the soldiers.
The male soloists and the chamber orchestra sing the poetry of Owen in English. All of the rest is sung by the others in Latin. As is appropriate for a mass, the audience are given the ‘missal’ in the programme to follow as the music progresses.
It is impossible to fault the musicianship of the Orchestra, and I have already gushed about Sir Davis. The voices of the boys choir really did float down over us like a heavenly chorus of angels.
It is strange to say this was a beautiful concert, because musically it is not really. It is not ‘melodic’ in a tuneful way. Britten fills it full of unresolved chords and interrupted sequences.
The ‘Dies Irae’ is a stunning composition which elicits all the energy and falls eagerness at the beginning of battle, only to resolve into a mire of despair and sadness as it goes on and on and Death becomes one of the brothers in arms. This was, perhaps, the one time Sir Davis couldn’t keep the orchestra under the male soloists voices, but this did not bother me as the music clearly stated the intention of the moment.
The ‘Offertorium’ is a sad but lovely respite as the male soloists have a conversation, reciting Owen’s ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’. It is the story of Abraham’s offering of his son as sacrifice to God. It is eerily offset by the boys asking God to ‘deliver the souls of all the faithful departed…’
The final movement in the composition, ‘Libera Me’ is a triumph. It begins with drums – uneven and bedraggled – the chorus keep repeating “ignum” (fire) and a whip is heard each time. The Owen poem is ‘Strange Meeting’ and is one of his triumphs of pararhyme which involves retaining the consonants structure, but changing the vowel sounds. The strangeness of the rhyme is coupled with odd plosive vocalisation by the tenor to make us all uncomfortable and eager for it to stop – just like war.
The music ends with great sorrow and delicacy. Sir Davis holds the chorus on the final “amen” for longer than seems humanly possible. Even when the voices are silent, Davis doesn’t relax so that we, the audience sit in the fullness of the silence after such a journey. It is a long time before he releases us by relaxing, and then the cacophonous applause began.
The concert was a masterpiece. It was live streamed by the ABC, and if you are lucky they will rebroadcast it so you can experience it for yourselves. Britten is not for everyone, but the reasons behind that are what make him a composer so relevant to today.