In the various documentaries on Britten’s War Requiem that have been produced over the years there are always interviews with those who attended the first performance in Coventry Cathedral in 1962. They describe the amount to which they were moved in terms so seemingly hyperbolic that even the most ardent music fan must wonder if it was really like that, or if time has simply magnified memories. Then one sits down to listen to the work and suddenly the truth in every word that they spoke becomes clear.
This performance by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under the baton of Peter Oundjian, was moving by virtue of its astute understanding of the work. It is one thing to see Britten as juxtaposing Wilfred Owen poetry with the traditional Requiem Mass, but it is the choice and placing of each poem that makes it less a piece about contrasts than about synergies. If Britten’s music is then the key ingredient in ensuring the blend, an orchestra and chorus that understand how to make it work is just as important.
In this respect, the contributions of the Huddersfield Choral Society, RSNO Chorus and RSNO Junior Chorus (who sang angelically from the gallery), were outstanding as they brought infinite textures and colour to their sound. Enunciation was crisp, and the balance excellent as no line unduly stood out, but rather all blended to create a coherent, yet nuanced, whole. The ‘waves’ of sound created through the punctuations within the ‘Confutatis maledictis’ and subsequent ‘Oro supplex et acclinis’ sections were particularly well managed, while each section sitting down as they completed their own line at the end of the first ‘half’ of the Libera me emphasised the sense of plea in ‘Libera me, Domine’ amidst the storm.
The soloists were superb, with Allan Clayton excelling in the Agnus Dei where his strong and expensive tenor paradoxically conveyed the total sense of fragility and suffering of men. Russell Braun asserted his large and rounded baritone to excellent effect so that, even during the most agonising moments of text, it never lacked in warmth musically. Erin Wall’s beautiful soprano combined sumptuousness with clarity so that it soared above the hall. While Clayton and Braun stood at the front of the stage, Wall was positioned behind the orchestra in front of the chorus. If this placed greater demands on her projection, she met them to great advantage, with the only moment when she possibly suffered (and even then not much) coming at the end when she had to contend with the vast choral forces.
The orchestra, as a rule, got the balance between achieving precision, both in the mass playing and individual instrumental and percussion lines, and a sense of subtle mystery right. In the first ‘half’ of the Libera me the bowing was suitably intriguing, but could have benefitted from feeling starker. However, in the second ‘half’ the individual string instruments that supported the tenor and baritone ‘duet’ (brilliantly sung by Clayton and Braun) sounded perfect. With the children’s choir, chorus and soprano then entering, the ending to the piece felt as moving as any descriptions of the first performance would have had us imagine, and the nearly twenty seconds of silence that followed before any applause began, said it all.