Writing to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau about the Wilfred Owen poems which he was setting for the War Requiem, Britten remarked that “They will need singing with the utmost beauty, intensity and sincerity.” Mark Padmore and Matthias Goerne gave them all that and more, interpreting even the linguistically weaker sections (such as some of ‘Strange Meeting’) with power and authority. Such was the beauty of Padmore’s tone in ‘Move him into the sun’ and the intensity of Goerne’s singing of ‘The End,’ that it would be hard to imagine this music sung with greater sincerity – and their partnership was made even more moving by their respective nationalities being in tune with the composer’s wishes.
Nancy Gustafson’s soprano was heard to less advantage since she was placed rather awkwardly on the side of the main chorus, but her characteristically ecstatic phrasing still made an impact. The Philharmonia Chorus under Stefan Bevier produced a tremendous sound, the murmuring multitude of ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ and the astonishing long-held final ‘Amen’ being especially high points. Simon Toyne had emphasized clarity and forthrightness in his training of Tiffin Boys’ Choir, and it paid off with a far less ethereal sound than usual.
The chamber orchestra, placed very close to the male soloists so as to create an almost drawing-room effect, was finely directed by Aidan Oliver, and the Philharmonia itself was under the total, but not dictatorial control of Lorin Maazel, perhaps not the first conductor who might spring to mind when you think of this work, yet he shaped it with loving skill.
“All a poet can do today is warn,” said Owen, and this performance, not far off fifty years from the work’s premiere, continues to show us that art has the capacity not only to move but to force us to consider our own roles, passive or otherwise, in the conflicts around us. It was impossible not to be as affected by the bitterness of Padmore’s ‘Was it for this the clay grew tall?’ as by Goerne’s rapt fervour at ‘When lo! an angel called him out of heaven.’ Great singing, in one of the greatest works of the twentieth century.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk