Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is a work of intentional power and scope, drawing on sweeping forces as well as the combined strength of tradition (the Requiem Mass) and modern history not quite old enough to have lost its sting (the World War I-era poetry of Wilfred Owen). Richard Pittman led the New England Philharmonic together with the Chorus pro Musica, Providence Singers, and Boston Children’s Chorus in this massive undertaking last Saturday evening at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Pittman, choral director Betsy Burleigh, and the many musicians involved deserve to be lauded not only for the faith and commitment necessary to put this project together, but for vigor and effectiveness of their performance.
As a political statement, Britten’s Requiem is both universal — who can argue that the practice of war is not the basest of human inventions? — and also slyly subversive in its superimposition of the raw, biting disillusionment of Owen’s poetry on the austerity of Catholic tradition, the basis of Western music. Neither quality has gone out of style in 2012, the 50th anniversary of the War Requiem’s premiere at the consecration of England’s new Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed to a shell by Germany in World War II. The history of the War Requiem layers war upon war — WWI, WWII, the Cold War — and today we are no closer to achieving world peace. Peter Pulsifer’s program notes described the War Requiem as “an artistic attempt to communicate some of the true nature of war, an antidote to the tales of glory, appeals to national pride, and strategic abstractions that usually make up our experience of war.” The Cathedral of the Holy Cross, with its humbling and soaring arches, was a dramatic place to reaffirm such a statement. The opening address by Boston’s Archbishop Cardinal O’Malley, in which he spoke earnestly but light-heartedly of a “civilization of love” and “repairing the world,” and the attentiveness of the large audience filling the pews contributed to the air of gravity, respect, and hope that pervaded the evening.
Compositionally, the War Requiem is a piece of slow buildups and muted intensity, with a lot of ominous rumbling and few moments (especially considering the sheer volume available) of soul-baring thunder. The problem of maintaining momentum was compounded by the cavernous space, but patience was rewarded: by the piece’s conclusion, the orchestra, chorus, soloists, and children’s choir in the rear balcony achieved a truly impressive degree of communication. The opening “Requiem aeternam” had something of the flavor of primordial soup, with the symbolism-laden tritone of the bells cutting through the barely audible murmurings of the choir. The amorphous children’s voices floating down from the balcony contributed to the surreal murkiness before the timpani introduced tenor Frank Kelley in the first of Owen’s stark settings (“What passing bells for these who die as cattle?…”) The chorus returned for a magical a cappella “Kyrie,” the suspension of Britten’s distinctive harmonies completing the unsettling opening tableau.
Something about the brimstone of the Mass’s Dies irae sequence must satisfy some visceral human craving for chaos and destruction; how else to explain why Requiems’ Dies irae sections are frequently the most powerful and most anticipated? Britten’s “Dies irae” is no exception, and this was when Saturday’s performance really got off the ground. NEP’s brass section did the orchestra proud with its introductory fanfare and subsequent interludes, full of complex overlapping rhythmic flourishes which cut through the cathedral with crystalline clarity. Principal trumpeter Jason Huffman was especially authoritative in his text-painting role as the harbinger of doom. The bass voices picked up on the rhythmic energy with their pithy opening chant, the chorus gathering drive with the entrance of voices.
The “Dies irae” sequence is especially intricate, both orchestrationally and in the many subtly alternating emotional flavors of text and music. Tenor Kelley and baritone Sumner Thompson, singing Owen’s passages in solos and duets, highlighted the tension of these contrasts splendidly. Kelley was wonderfully evocative, poignant and accusatory by turn, his heart-rending enunciation compounded by an intense outward projection, as if demanding acknowledgment of the sorrow he was channeling. Sumner, though a bit more wedded to his book, contributed a bone-chilling gravitas to lines such as the imprecation “May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!” Kelley’s and Sumner’s duet on Owen’s “The Next War” was bitingly sarcastic, with tin-soldier jerkiness and martial snare drum entirely apt for the text. In striking contrast to the gentlemen’s immediacy, soprano Sarah Pelletier bestowed her Requiem solos from an ethereal distance, behind the orchestra and with the chorus. Although the busy texture and instrumental doublings at times threatened to drown her, the overall effect was somehow the more haunting, her voice rising plaintively from the chorus before being overwhelmed. The transitions between her solos in the “Lacrymosa” and Kelley’s interwoven poem “Futility” were seamless, and the a cappella choral “Amen” was, again, perfectly rendered.
The following “Offertorium” presents the most biting religious and moral commentary: Owen’s reworking of the story of Abraham and Isaac, in which Abraham rejects God’s mercy and instead of sacrificing the ram, “…slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.” Juxtaposed with the soloists’ brash presentation of this chronicle of human arrogance and ruin is the children’s choir’s “Domine,” both sweetly sad and sinister in context, especially when cruelly interrupted by Owen’s final line. The full chorus supported and commented with a softness that seemed the equivalent of string tremolos. Britten’s scoring, for a separate chamber orchestra accompaniment to the tenor’s and baritone’s solo sections, provides a chance for individual instrumental solos to emerge from the miasma; unfortunately, although winds consistently came spiritedly through, the solo strings were frequently lost. (In general, though the string players were evidently working tirelessly, I wished there had been larger sections to create a stronger foundation in the tutti sections.) A notable exception was concertmaster Dianne Pettipaw’s solo to accompany the appearance of the (spurned) angel in the poem. Her tones soared transcendently.
The final movements, though lacking in the sort of climactic punch of the “Dies irae,” built absorbingly in intricacy and intensity. The refinement of the individual groups’ sounds — chorus, orchestra, soloists, chamber orchestra, children’s choir — allowed them to interact ever more seamlessly. The “Sanctus” opened with soprano and clanging percussion before merging into exquisite modal harmonies over a gentle throb, which in turn segued into Thompson’s somber baritone solo accompanied by woodwind burbles. In the next movement, unison strings finally achieved a satisfying base for a gentle solo by Kelley, well balanced by the chorus’s tender “Agnus dei.”
The final movement, “Libera me,” was a fittingly understated apotheosis. The quiet overlapping of the chorus was the most successful yet of their soft sections. The opening slowly built to a recap of the “Dies irae” theme, which coupled with Pelletier’s throbbing “Libera me” to create a final brief beseeching cry before the movement’s denouement. The individual lines of Kelley and Thompson’s final recitative-style poem, with chamber accompaniment, came through with clarity, both in the intricate woodwind countermelodies and in the steady, perfectly intoned pedal from the strings. The gentleness of the concluding settling of all forces into the joint “Let us sleep now” and “Requiescant in pace” carried the mix of weariness and quiet determination that Britten surely intended.
The drama and the power of the War Requiem reside not in crashing symbols and wild thrashing, but in somber reflection, intimate detail, balance, interplay, and connection. Pittman, Burleigh, and all the musicians involved demonstrated their artistic devotion and their belief in Britten’s singular voice over the course of this fine performance.
Zoe Kemmerling is a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory and a freelance violist, Baroque violinist, writer, and string instructor.