Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Britten: War Requiem @ Royal Albert Hall, London

9 November 2008

Britten: War Requiem@ Royal Albert Hall, London, 9 November 2008
5 stars

Britten: War Requiem
Britten’s War Requiem was assured a lengthy after-life ever since its first, acclaimed performance in Coventry Cathedral in 1962. Later came performances in Dresden in 1965, marking the twentieth anniversary of the citys bombing, and then at the Edinburgh festival in 1968, under the shadow of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Like many famous works, our perception of it has been shaped by its frequent performances in emotive circumstances. In the light of these contexts, does the listener respond to the subject matter, provoked by the composers concept – the tear-jerking juxtaposition of the mass for the dead with words by the First World War poet Wilfred Owen – or to the music itself?

Sundays performance itself commemorated the ninetieth anniversary of the Armistice, but the audience was noticeably young. I wonder if the work still resonates as it once did. What the Royal Opera Houses performance allowed us to appreciate was Brittens astonishing artistry; distanced as we are from the time the piece was written, we can see it as a masterpiece of word setting and dramatic pacing.

The soprano Christine Brewer sculpted beautifully the sinuous curves of the ‘Lacrimosa’, although I felt her Sibylline exhortations in her first entry (Liber scriptus) lacked arresting brilliance – perhaps the Albert Halls cavernous acoustic is to blame. Thomas Hampson was a serene and warm-voiced presence as the baritone.

Ian Bostridge is surely the ideal interpreter of the solo tenor part (conceived for Peter Pears), denying any sentimentality, constantly probing each phrase for new intellectual subtleties. His sensibilities seem to chime perfectly with Brittens own.

Antonio Pappano conducted the Royal Opera Orchestra and an augmented Chorus with his customary precision, rallying the most distant side drums as well as drawing silken sounds when needed, and using his thrilling dramatic sense to build an inexorable climax to the Libera me. The excellent Tiffin Boy’s Choir sang from the gallery.

I certainly didn’t have my “Kleenex at the ready” (Stravinskys cynical response to the piece was quoted in Ian Bostridges intelligent programme note), but marvelled at an outstanding performance. All too soon, the two World Wars will seem as remote to us as the Wars of the Roses do now, but Brittens sacred masterpiece will remain as a brilliant collage of emotive texts handled with consummate skill.

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