Britten’s War Requiem may have originally been composed to mark the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962, but there could have been no more fitting piece for the Foundation Schools to perform on the centenary of the end of the First World War. This is partly because Britten’s work, which utilises the poetry of Wilfred Owen, has a resonance that goes far beyond the single war that led to its creation, and partly because the Foundation Schools (Dulwich College, James Allen’s Girls Schools and Alleyn’s School) lost 531 Old Alleynians and 274 Alleyn Old Boys in the terrible conflict.
When the schools still so rightly appreciate all that their founder Edward Alleyn, the Elizabethan actor, theatre impresario and musician, did for them, it is no surprise that they should see the First World War as a real event in which their own predecessors sacrificed everything. This feeling of respect very much came across in the piece, as a sense of what the performers felt they owed to those who had gone before them seemed audible in every note.
The two orchestras were provided by the Foundation Schools’ Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra respectively, while the Foundation Schools’ Choir provided the chorus and the boys’ and girls’ choir. Everything felt well drilled as the boys’ and girls’ choir with its conductor Chris Dearmer sang from offstage, while Richard Mayo conducted the main orchestra and chorus, and Peter Gritton the chamber orchestra. The playing revealed a remarkable level of security and confidence from the young musicians, while the chorus equally proved its worth by responding to the direction so superbly. One could single out the organ playing of Claire Cousens, or the contribution of the chamber orchestra as a whole, but it was the way in which everything came together that made the performance so persuasive. The ending to the Libera me was as moving as any to be heard, and the long silence between the end of the final note and the start of the applause spoke volumes about what had just been experienced.
From among the high calibre soloists, Jane Irwin was particularly engaging as her soprano, which possesses such an ethereal edge, was paradoxically put to use in ‘weighing down’ her words with sorrow and gravitas. Robin Tritschler’s tenor and Philip Tebb’s baritone were also excellent and their duet within The Parable of the Old Man and the Young was exceptionally moving. No less so was their performance of Strange Meeting, in which Owen describes a vision of him meeting an enemy soldier who he had killed. As Tebb sang of his death at Tritschler’s hand, one saw in the tenor’s face the silent horror of one who had to confront what he had done to a fellow human being.
It was a slight shame that the performance was divided in two by an interval, but it may have been too much to ask all of the young performers to keep focused for ninety minutes, with no pause for breath. In addition, performing the piece uninterrupted would almost certainly have precluded the playing of anything else as it would have made the single span even longer. As it was, the inclusion of Herbert Howells’ short Elegy for Viola, String Quartet and String Orchestra of 1917 at the start of the evening felt highly fitting. The composer dedicated it to the memory of Francis Purcell Warren, a close friend and viola player who went missing during the Battle of the Somme and whose body was never recovered. It was a beautiful piece that saw the viola interact effectively with both quartet and orchestra. Soloist Alinka Rowe, who was a music scholar at Alleyn’s School and has just won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, revealed a strong bowing technique that was highly suited to emphasising the weight of sorrow to be found within the piece.