Wednesday 26 June 2013

Britten's War Requiem at the City of London Festival

St Paul's Cathedral from the Dome
The 2013 City of London Festival has taken as one of its themes, conflict and resolution, so in Britten's centenary year a performance of the composer's War Requiem seems a perfect fit. Edward Gardner conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, CBSO chorus and Choristers of St. Pauls at St. Paul's Cathedral on 25 June 2013, with soloists Evelina Dobraceva, Toby Spence and Russell Braun. The work was written for the reopening of Coventry Cathedral and premiered there in 1962 with the composer conducting. The work has become relatively common in concert halls, but having been written for Coventry Cathedral, I was curious to find out how it responded to the very strong personality of acoustic of St. Paul's Cathedral.

From the opening notes, it was clear that St. Paul's acoustic was going to be a strong participant in the performance. Never has Britten's orchestration at the opening seemed so foreboding. Edward Gardner took the speed steady, allowing the sound to develop complementing the muttering of the CBSO chorus in a truly eerie way. This was thrilling and unsettling.

The choristers from St. Paul's were invisible, placed in the choir and forming a purely spectral presence.

Whilst the acoustic may have been an advantage at the opening, when Toby Spence came to sing What passing bells it was apparent that he and baritone Russell Braun would have their work cut out to make the words tell. But singing with intense, bright tone and very firm of purpose, Spence certainly made the words count for much. Here, and throughout, Spence seemed very firm of purpose and intent though his stage manner seemed a little stiff.

( We were sitting under the dome, towards the side in the third row, so were lucky enough to have a good view of all three soloists and probably a near idea aural image).

The opening of the Dies Irae was chilling and spine-tingly. Yes we lost details into the aural blur, but the slow build up that Gardner brought to the opening choral section was very finely judged and the acoustics seemed to add extra spatial differentiation to the various elements of the orchestration.

Russell Braun was nicely intense with a very firm line in Bugles sang, though I would have preferred him to be more histrionic. Soprano Evelina Dobraceva (replacing Albina Shagimuratova) was very Slavic of tone and evoked memories of Galina Vishnevskaya in her Liber scriptus. Words did rather disappear during Spence and Braun's duet Out there, we walked quite friendly up to death. They gave vigorous account, but it was very, very serious and lacked light and shade. After all, Britten's setting does evoke Weill and I feel a hind of irony does not come amiss.

Though the choral sound was sometimes diffuse, the long Recordare section was haunting and very moving, with Braun impressive and implacable in Be slowly lifted up, bringing great power to the piece and clear words. The chorus's Dies irae interruption, with its powerfully effective rhythmic trumpets and drums, was followed by Dobraceva's wonderfully plangent Lacrimosa, sung with a fine sense of line and cutting tone.

Spence brought colour and beautiful expressivity to Move him, move him and the conclusion, 'was it for this the clay grew tall' combined with the chorus's completion of the Dies Irae was profoundly moving.

For opening of the Offertorium attention centred on the boys, magically aetherial but also rather earthy, contrasting with the vigour of the chorus's Quam olim abrahae fugue. The Abraham and Isaac duet was well presented by Spence and Braun, though I was not sure that it was intense enough. That said, appearance of the angel had great beauty and they made the most of Wilfred Owen's striking ending to the poem.

Dobraceva and the chorus were magisterial in the Sanctus and Benedictus with Gardner making the size of space and the magnitude of his force count both in the quiet and in the shattering climaxes. Braun was vividly expressive in After the blast of lightening, though his delivery was a little buttoned up. But perhaps the fault is mind, I have always found this poem wordy and problematical.

But Spence was on magical form in One ever hangs, singing with intense tone and remarkable power, nicely contrasted with the chorus's Agnus dei. And Spence floated the concluding Dona nobis pacem quite beautifully.

As expected the Libera me was shattering. This wonderful movement has always had a remarkable power for me, with Britten's orchestrations evoking the sounds of war. Gardner managed to bring clarity to the textures, whilst allowing the sounds to develop and generate an eerie power. Spence's opening of Strange meeting was simply wonderful, the quiet after the storm. His flexible delivery made his performance earlier in the evening seem a little stiff, as if time had been needed, but it was worth waiting for. And though Braun's delivery still seemed a little inhibited, he too was moving with a great feeling for the words. And the line I am the enemy you killed, my friend never fails to move.

The conclusion, when all the forces come together for the first time, beautifully controlled by Gardner and after the final notes drifted away he held the audience quiet for what seemed like an eternity.

As is the norm nowadays, Edward Gardner conducted both the orchestra (accompanying chorus and soprano soloists) and the small ensemble (accompanying the tenor and baritone solos). The CBSO provided the personnel for the small ensemble. All involved, orchestra, ensemble and chorus performed magnificently, responding well to Gardner and providing a disciplined but powerful performance.

There will always be room for concert hall performances of the War Requiem, which allow the tenor and bass soloists more flexibility with the delivery of the words and gives them an easier communication with the audience. But Gardner and his soloists showed that a thing of remarkable power could be built utilising the remarkable acoustic of St. Paul's.

Update: I heard from a correspondent who was also at the performance, but further back. They had this to say:-
We were in row P of the dome & my only comment was ‘great piece rendered pointless  by the building’ We could hardly hear anything of the soloists / words. There was no separation between the orchestra & the chamber lot. ... we had no idea what the performance was like, as we couldn’t hear it.

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