Friday, 22 August 2014

Prom 47: Britten War Requiem

Andris Nelsons - photo Marco Borgreve
Andris Nelsons - photo Marco Borgreve
Britten War Requiem: Toby Spence, Hanno Muller-Brachmann, Susan Gritton, BBC Proms Youth Choir, CBSO Children's Chorus, CBSO, Andris Nelsons; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 21 2014
Star rating: 5.0
Youthful singers to the fore in this performance of Britten's great choral work

For the performance of Britten's War Requiem at this year's Proms on Thursday 21 August 2014, conductor Andris Nelsons and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra were joined by soloists Susan Gritton, Toby Spence and Hanno Muller-Brachmann with the BBC Proms Youth Choir and CBSO Children's Chorus.


 Since it was founded in 2012, the BBC Proms Youth Choir (chorus master Simon Halsey) has made an annual appearance at the Proms. This year the choir fielded some 250 young singers from the CBSO Youth  Chorus, London Youth Choir, National Youth Choir of Wales, Ulster Youth Choir and University of Aberdeen Chamber Choir.

Britten at rehearsals for the premiere of the War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral
Britten at rehearsals for the premiere
of the War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral

Britten's War Requiem was written for the re-building of Coventry Cathedral. Premiered in 1962, when Meredith Davies and Britten conducted the CBSO, Nelsons and the CBSO gave the 50th anniversary performance of the work in Coventry Cathedral.

In the Albert Hall (possibly an even more reverberant space than Coventry Cathedral), Nelsons opened with steady tempi and a lovely hushed sense from the choir. The opening Requiem aeternam was notable for the chorus's precision and sense of atmosphere.

This continued into the Dies Irae which started in a rather low-key manner, steady tempo with very marked and articulated rhythms (from chorus and from orchestra), but built in a steadily  to the shattering climax. In the Recordare the choir's bright, forward young sound was very noticeable, but it was used in a very expressive way and they made a lovely straight sound. There was a lovely clarity to the various layers in the Lacrimosa (soprano and chorus, tenor soloist, chamber ensemble, orchestra), and the final Pie Jesu was so whispered and hushed it was barely there, quite magical. Throughout this movement you were conscious of the way Nelsons articulated his large forces to capture the sense of the space. Whilst at first I thought that his interpretation was too hushed, too steady, it grew on me as the performance developed.

The trenchant contribution of the children's choir to the Offertorium was complemented by the lovely swing which the main choir brought to Sed signifer sanctus Michael. The Sanctus was notable for the strong contrast between Susan Gritton's wonderfully straight tone and the vast whispering of the choir in the Pleni sunt coeli. In the final Libera me, Nelson's again showed his preference for a slow build, creating the opening full of telling detail and vivid clarity, but quiet and steady. A strong performance from both choir and orchestra, allowed Nelsons to build this movement to its stunning climax. After the final haunting Wilfred Owen setting, Nelsons drew all his varied forces into a hushed but magical conclusion.

Soprano Susan Gritton has rather made the soprano part of this piece her own, singing with something of the directness and straightness of tone that Vishnevskaya brought to it, but also contributing beauty of tone and warmth of expression. All of her contributions has a wonderful directness, without ever feeling strained.

Tenor Toby Spence brought bright tone and a superb feel for the words to the solo tenor part. His performance was notable for the bright clarity with which he sang, but also for a very fine sympathy for the words. We could not only hear every one, but they were beautifully and inextricably mixed with the music. Move him into the sun (in the Dies Irae) was hardly there at all in a very moving way, which created a little bit of magic when combined with the soprano solo and chorus's poignant Lacrimosa. Spence's alertness to the nuances of text was really brought home in the fine performance of One ever hangs where shelled roads part in the Agnus Dei.

The baritone part was written for the great German baritone, Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and it was Britten's intention to have a British and a German soloist. Even now, this can raise a tingle during the final movement. But with generations of Anglophone baritones singing the role, to mention nothing of Dieskau as an exemplar, it takes a degree of bravery for a young German-speaking baritone to tackle the part. Hanno Muller-Brachmann sang with a degree of accent, but was also highly alert to the nuances of the text, complemented by an admirable firmness of voice. His opening solo, Bugles sang (in the Dies Irae) had a lovely spaciousness as well as a vivid directness. Be slowly lifted up (in the Dies Irae) had a certain sober strength. As with many baritones, After the blast of lightning (in the Sanctus) seemed to defeat Muller-Brachmann as to the sense of the piece, but frankly I have heard few soloists do this convincingly.

The tenor and baritone duets were all highly vivid. Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death (in the Dies Irae) was perhaps more sober, less Kurt-Weill-ish than some performances, whilst  So Abram rose (in the Offertorium) started in a rather understated manner but its climax never fails. The last of the duets, and in some ways the climax of the whole piece, is the Strange Meeting in the Libera me. Toby Spence and Andris Nelsons created a magical, tingle-making transition from the end of the chorus Libera me Domine into the tenor solo, and Spence's performance with its vivid words was mesmerising. Muller-Brachmann was bleakly plangent and expressive, bring a lovely strength to the line as the piece progress and a profound sense to the final verse, I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

Any performance of Britten's War Requiem is remarkable, but Nelsons and his forces brought a profound feeling of strength and control in the way that they filled the whole Albert Hall, but still ensured clarity and transparency. As the World War One commemorations progress, I am sure that we will be hearing more iWar Requiems, but in the 100th anniversary of the start of the war this was a finely moving occasion.
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