Benjamin Britten would have been 99 last week, and this performance of one of his greatest compositions ushered in a feast of events in the coming year, dedicated to his choral, vocal and instrumental works, most frequently at venues all over London and in Aldeburgh.
“All a poet can do today is warn” wrote Wilfred Owen, and that message remains as true today as it was when Britten composed his anti-war masterpiece. The settings of Owen’s poetry and the Missa pro Defunctis were here presented by a starry team of soloists, all Brits instead of the ‘original’ mixture of German, British and Russian singers, but none the weaker for that. They were led by John Mark Ainsley’s always-sensitive tenor, his incisive expressiveness at ‘What passing bells’ as impressive as the intimacy which he managed to suggest with this vast audience at ‘To break earth’s sleep at all.’ Ainsley conveyed both the bitterness of his first solo and the sadness of his final lines, ‘Lifting distressful hands as if to bless’ the perfect evocation of Owen’s language and Britten’s setting of it.
Alan Opie’s singing was less well defined, with a somewhat general feel to ‘Bugles sang’ although his phrasing at ‘I am the enemy you killed’ was characteristically noble. His interpretation tended towards the blustering at times, although this could be regarded as apt in ‘After the blast of lightning.’ Sally Matthews was able to convey the full import of her music in ‘Liber scriptus’ and ‘Sanctus’ thanks to being placed at the side of the stage rather than the more usual back of it or even back of the auditorium. Even in the most exposed passages, her tone remained sweet, with none of the stridency which affects some singers in this music.
The Eltham College Trebles don’t give you quite the same sense that you’re hearing a bunch of well-trained cherubs as, say, Tiffin Boys’ Choir, but that is perhaps appropriate in this quite edgy music. The Bach Choir rose to the occasion in the grander sections, but I missed the sense of exactitude needed in moments such as ‘Sed signifer.’ David Hill drew committed playing from the RPO; despite occasional glitches from the brass this was powerful playing, nowhere more so than from the Chamber Orchestra, led by Stephanie Gonley. The conductor dedicated the evening to the memory of Sir Philip Ledger, and he would surely have been delighted with such a memorial.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk