Shortly before the War Requiem’s 1962 premier, Benjamin Britten decided he needed to have a look at the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral. It had been commissioned there and was the designated venue for first performance. It is sited dramatically adjacent to the ravaged 14th-century building, just a hollow shell after the devastating 1940 German air raid that destroyed not only the cathedral but most of the rest of the city. This was Britten’s first visit to the new building, and he was shocked. He disliked the look of it and called the acoustics “lunatic.” So much for smooth sailing. And that was just the prelude to a series of problems—clerical, logistical, technical, and, oh yes, musical—that were unfolding, or about to, as perhaps the inevitable sidebars to the birth pangs of a unique masterpiece.
One assumes that the Boston Symphony faced somewhat fewer of the kinds of hurdles Britten faced in his first performance as they prepared for Thursday’s first-of-three readings this week for one of Britten’s and the last century’s, finest musical achievements. But there surely are obstacles to be faced and conquered in any revival of this massive work. The demands on talent and technique for the performers are enormous, bigger perhaps, at least in a transcendental sense, than the walls of any concert hall can contain. As a performer and as a listener, one lives this music. Anything less is failure. The message is there, but it communicates first through precision, then passion. As fine music teachers have told their students for generations though: It’s all in the notes.
The War Requiem is a full Latin Mass of the Dead into which are interleaved selections of the anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen, who himself was killed in the very last week of the Great War, in 1918. Owen’s poems left an indelible impression on Britten, as they do on all who read his battlefield reflections: ugly, heart wrenching images of the dead and dying captured in words of unforgettable, pained beauty. Not for Owen the “nobility” of a trench warfare death in service of a hallowed “God and Country” tradition, even if as eloquently expressed in the words of other war poets, such as Rupert Brooke’s “Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!/ There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,/ But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.” Contrast this with Owen’s, “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” This is the first line outside the Mass text one hears in the War Requiem.
Musically, the War Requiem is based on the simplest of devices: two notes, a C and an F-sharp, the nettlesome tritone that demands resolution, which in this work remains intransigent of that resolution (intentionally, of course) most of the time. We are introduced to these two tones that carry so much tension at the very beginning. The chorus murmurs, hardly audibly, as if from afar, Requiem aeternam. Quietly, the first F-sharp bell sounds, then the C. The orchestra joins with the chorus in a solemn dirge that grows in intensity (fury?) until both subside to allow the boys’ choir to enter with their almost jaunty chant, Te decet hymnus (you are praised, God, in Zion). Underneath them the reiterated C and F-sharp are taken up by the orchestral violins. As the boys reach the final line of text, ad te omnis caro veniet (to you all flesh will come) the chant breaks down and the boys, first in monotonic dialogue, then singing in parts on C and F-sharp sing and reiterate, Ad te…. ( to you…..), after which the first of the Owen poems, the one that refers to “cattle,” is introduced by the tenor soloist in tones of righteous anger.
Thus the pattern is set. The Mass texts are allocated to the main choir and orchestra with the soprano as the only soloist. The boys’ choir, from afar, accompanied by chamber organ, also sings only Mass words. The Owen poems are sung by tenor and bass soloists accompanied by a separate chamber orchestra.
The War Requiem is full of symbols, some having to do with world and artistic politics, some arising from ecclesiastical/liturgical traditions, some just related to performance choices. The solo vocal parts were written specifically for a Russian soprano, a German baritone and an English tenor: Galina Vishnevskaya, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Peter Pears, representing the three European nations most affected by World War II. Of course, the very location of the first performance was a compelling symbol enough. The Soviet Commissar of Culture, Ekaterina Furtseva, gained a certain international notoriety when she declined to issue a travel permit to allow Vishnevskaya to sing at the premier: “How can you, a Soviet woman, stand next to a German and an Englishman and perform a political work?” She was right, of course. It is a political work! And what a one it is. But so much more. In the event, the fine English soprano Heather Harper learned the role quickly and filled in well. Vishnevskaya was permitted an exit visa for the first recording.
Charles Dutoit is a master of his craft and of this work. This performance enjoyed the precision and control of his exemplary technique: cues apt, pacing superbly calculated, concept solidly musical and faithful to the score. This was controlled music making of the finest sort. No show-boating–so wisely human in concept and execution.
And he was in extraordinarily fine company. The orchestral playing was of the highest BSO standard. That, of course, is high indeed. The chamber orchestra within the larger orchestra was especially fine. Their role, as accompanists to the tenor and bass soloists, who, between them, share responsibility for giving us Wilfred Owen’s blunt and beautiful messages about the horrors of World War I trench warfare, was spot on and responsive to the texts as much as the singers were.
From the large orchestra also came a marvel of astounding playing throughout. Early on one felt like looking up to see if the ceiling was still in place as the brass took charge of things in the Dies irae. From all the orchestral sections this was playing of the finest Boston standard, which is to say of world standard.
Britten’s international mix of solo singers was reaffirmed here. The Russian soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya has become in recent years an established figure in the international opera world. Her mastery of the major Russian operatic heroines is secure. The classic dramatic soprano roles of European opera are also in her repertoire. At the beginning of Thursday’s performance, I felt she was trying too hard to convince us of her Russian credentials and risking perhaps too much in the process. The voice is big, very big. Not until the Lacrimosa section of the Dies irae did she win me over. Her pianissimo there was golden, touched with velvet and deeply in touch with both Britten and Verdi (whom Britten references here and in a number of other places in the Requiem). At that point I was converted. The fire we heard earlier, and later, was put in context. And I must say that her Latin pronunciation is worlds better than Vishnevskaya’s, who nonetheless set the table for interpretations of this role.
Tenor John Mark Ainsley is at the very top of his game. He is among the very few who carry the gold standard of Britten interpreters these days. His mastery of the notes, the words, and the interior meanings at every moment—the musical and verbal nuances that are fully at his command—serve as a didactic example of how this part should be sung in the post-Pears generation.
The Baritone Matthias Goerne is a noted singer of Lieder. I was impressed at the subtlety of much of his work in the Requiem. And yet, there was much missing. Why would such a sophisticated singer in the German language often be so careless about English vowels and especially dropped consonants, the latter, after all, being such an important element in German speech and singing? The voice is large, filling the hall with plentiful sound, and the communication of the musical and humanistic aspects was commendable.
The American Boychoir was the offstage representative of an ancient liturgical tradition that is, in one sense, very much of the Requiem’s essence. How many generations of this choir have experienced both the challenges and triumphs of this work since 1963, when they sang in the BSO’s American premier of it under Leinsdorf? That experience shows; their singing was very fine indeed.
Who was the real star of this show? I would nominate John Oliver. His work with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus just grows and grows and grows in excellence. One expected this chorus of over 100 singers to make a glorious noise, and it certainly did. But it was their pianississimos that blew me away; that and their enunciation throughout. The three magical a cappella F major cadences—concluding the Kyrie, the Dies irae, and In paradisum—each made up of exactly the same musical material, but each stretching farther and farther into infinity in their quietness and superbly clear articulation, were breath taking. That will live in my memory for ever. I can’t leave the chorus without also mentioning the splendidly understated Recordare and the spectacular virtuosity of the wickedly difficult Quam olim Abrahae fugue. And all from memory.
A few more highlights. Goerne’s singing of his first solo, “Bugles sang…” the final line lingers in memory, especially the way the word “shadow” was mumured in the line, “Bowed by the shadow of the morrow, slept.” The soprano’s Liber scriptures was striking even if at the expense of some verbal clarity. Ainsley’s “Move him into the sun,” where the speaker hopes to revive his dead comrade by such a move: unspeakably beautiful. Owen’s retelling of the Abraham and Isaac story in which Britten uses some music from his earlier Canticle of that name; but in Owen’s telling the old man goes ahead with the slaying of his son…”and half the seed of Europe, one by one:” Devastating. In the Sanctus, Pavlovskaya’s Benedictus—wondrous soft singing, floating up again and again to a radiant high A, preceded and followed by the chorus and orchestra’s blazing D major Hosannas. The tenor’s addition of Dona nobis pacem (Grant us peace) in the Agnus Dei; in a stroke of genius, Britten added this line which is not part of the Requiem text. The baritone’s “None, said the other…” which was finely expressive and with better textual articulation; making it clear why this singer is such a fine Lieder singer.
Thank you to the Boston Symphony for honoring Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday in such an unforgettable way!
The War Requiem, even though widely praised at its premier, had some naysayers. The audience then responded with deep and positive emotion to that performance, even though Britten felt it was seriously flawed. And that popularity has only widened since then. From generation to generation, more and more people seem to “get it.” Sometimes it’s worthwhile, though, to look at dissenting opinions about major art works and subject and test them against current views. The late Michael Steinberg, the eminent Boston Globe music critic in the 1960s, up to the mid-70s, was a sophisticated and perceptive evaluator of music and performance, even if he expressed himself often in words that seemed somewhat over-heated. Writing in the Globe in 1974 about another Britten work, he said, “That Britten passed his peak in the middle or late 50s seems clear now, and to most of those who knew his music best, the War Requiem of 1962, the composition that brought him his widest acclaim, was far from his strongest work.”
In fairness, one must note that later in the same piece he expressed the hope that this judgment might be wrong.
My purpose in citing this quote about a work that now seems so secure in its place in music history, is to assert that sometimes audiences know more than critics, and always get the last word.