“My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity” wrote Wilfred Owen, and this searing performance brought that home more vividly than any other I can recall. Of all the celebrations of Benjamin Britten’s centenary, this was perhaps the most apt and most revelatory of his genius.
It was Britten’s original intention that the soloists should be English, German and Russian, and so it was here, with three singers whose performances of the tenor, baritone and soprano parts could hardly be bettered. Ian Bostridge never stands still in terms of interpretation, and you never quite know what you’ll get when he launches into ‘What passing bells’ – this time, it was stark, deeply etched anger, the lines so clearly enunciated that, as was once said of another tenor, you could almost see his consonants. Evelina Dobračeva was replacing the scheduled soprano at short notice, but you would not have known this from her assured performance, her creamy, finely focused voice blending seamlessly with the orchestra or soaring ecstatically over it as required.
Matthias Goerne’s singing of the baritone solos in ‘After the blast of lightning from the East’ and ‘None,’ said the other, ‘save the undone years’ was amongst the most intensely moving, emotionally involving I have ever experienced. The phrases ‘It is death’ in the former and ‘The hopelessness… the pity of war, the pity war distilled’ in the latter were uttered with such measured fervour that you were acutely aware of their effect upon the audience, who received them with the kind of stunned silence all too rarely heard in the concert hall. His voice blended superbly with Bostridge’s, making the duet ‘So Abram rose’ exceptionally powerful; ‘When lo! an angel called him out of Heaven’ was one of those moments of rare transfigured bliss.
That sense of transfiguration emanated with equal intensity from Vladimir Jurowski who conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a blazing account of the score, every section producing playing of the highest quality, echoed by the equally superb chamber orchestra conducted by Neville Creed. The London Philharmonic choir covered itself in glory, whether evoking chattering multitudes in ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ or thundering out the ‘Dies irae.’ The boys from Trinity School’s choir were placed a little too distantly for full impact, but this did not detract from a performance which was greeted with a long, almost reverential silence which yet spoke eloquently to the impact of this near-perfect interpretation of Britten’s great masterpiece.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.