Monday 5 November 2018

Lincolnshire Remembers: Britten's War Requiem in Lincoln

Britten: War Requiem - Lincoln Cathedral (Photo Phil Crow)
Britten: War Requiem - Lincoln Cathedral (Photo Phil Crow)
Britten War Requiem; Lincoln Cathedral Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 November 2018 Britten's War Requiem in Lincoln Cathedral, given by performers from across the county

On Saturday 3 November 2018 we were in Lincoln Cathedral to hear Benjamin Britten's War Requiem in the cathedral. Under the title Lincolnshire Remembers, it was very much a communal event. Mark Wilde (who lectures in music at Lincoln University and  sings in Lincoln Cathedral Choir) conducted the Lincolnshire Chamber Orchestra (Augmented) with a choir made up of Lincoln Choral Society, Gainsborough Choral Society, Grimsby Philharmonic Society, Louth Choral Society, Philharmonischer Chor Liedertafel Neustadt, and Scunthorpe and District Choral Society, whilst Susan Hollingworth conducted the chamber ensemble made up of members of Lincolnshire Chamber Orchestra, and Aric Prentice conducted trebles from the choir of Lincoln Cathedral, with soloists Rachel Nicholls (soprano), Alessandro Fisher (tenor) and Julien Van Mellaerts (baritone). The result was around 380 choristers and 120 orchestra in the nave of the cathedral.

There is something about the way that Britten articulates his forces, tenor and baritone soloists at the front with the chamber ensemble, large chorus and orchestra with the soprano soloist (here stood in the pulpit) and trebles singing unseen in the distance with the organ (here in the choir stalls behind the screen), that responds to the amplitude of space and acoustic in a large cathedral  in way which does not happen with a concert hall performance. The result had a large element of drama which made the concert work come alive vividly.

Of course there is another element in this structural organisation too, the work was written for a Russian soprano, an English tenor (who had been a pacifist in World War Two) and a German baritone (who had been in the Hitler youth and was reluctantly drafted into the Wehrmacht aged 18). But such is Britten's genius, that the work is far greater than these specifics, and works its magic whoever the performers are.

Both Alessandro Fisher and Julien Van Mellaerts got a striking amount of the text over, creating a remarkably intimate sense of narrative. Fisher sang with a beautifully elegant sense of line, not being frightened to fine his tone right down, and Van Mellaerts contributed some lovely warm tones and a nice directness, so that their final contribution, the highly evocative 'Strange Meeting' was indeed very moving. Soprano soloist Rachel Nicholl soared about the combined choir and orchestra with ease and was clearly channelling Galina Vishnevskaya (for whom the part was written), in a thrillingly expressive way.

The trebles from the cathedral choir (boys and girls) sounded clear, effortless and aetherial in a way which contrasted with the sheer humanity of the other performers. That the choral part was a challenge for the choristers from the assembled choirs is hardly to be doubted. All had been rehearsing in the separate choirs since early Summer, coming together as one only towards the end of October (I received occasional information on progress as one of my cousins was singing in one of the choirs). But the result was a stirring communal event, rising above the strain of the work's difficulties to create a truly memorable occasion, from the mutterings of the opening 'Kyrie', through the incredible climaxes of the 'Dies Irae' to the remarkable 'Libera me'.

The chamber ensemble and orchestra (based on the professional Lincolnshire Chamber Orchestra augmented by local free-lance players and teachers) made its own strong contributions, and the chamber ensemble (under Susan Hollingworth's fine direction) kept fluidly alongside the tenor and baritone soloists. Whilst conductor Mark Wilde marshalled his forces, clearly intent to do rather more than be simply a traffic policeman.

This was a striking occasion, notable for both the musical and non-musical resonances, what with the projection of names of the fallen during the performance, the dropping of poppies during the final pages of the piece, and even the chiming of the cathedral bells just after the performance had ended.

Update: A correspondent (see comments below) has advised that this was not the first performance of Britten's War Requiem  in the cathedral, as one took place around 2000 with Uppingham School forces, plus Colin Walsh directing the cathedral choir.
Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Brushing away cynicism: Philippe Jordan & the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven - (★★★★) CD review
  • The Unknown Traveller: The Fieri Consort in Italian madrigals from Musica Transalpina and Ben Rowarth (★★★★) - CD review
  • Disturbing intensity: Lucia di Lammermoor at ENO (★★★★) - opera review
  • Voices of Aotearoa - Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir at Cadogan Hall (★★★½) - concert review
  • Die Walküre - Royal Opera House Live  - (★★★½) Opera review
  • Confidence: Julien Behr in 19th century Romantic French opera arias (★★★★★)  - CD review
  • Musical drama: Bellini's Norma with Helena Dix in the title role  - (★★★★½) - Opera review
  • New music in Manchester - I chat to Tim Williams, artistic director of Psappha  - my interview
  • A walk with Ivor Gurney: Sarah Connolly and Tenebrae at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Colour and movement: orchestral music by Kenneth Hesketh (★★★½) - CD review
  • Abbandonata: Italian cantatas from Carolyn Sampson and Robert King  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Vivid story telling: Schubert's Swansong with Sir John Tomlinson and Christopher Glynn (★★★★) - CD review
  • Music for Windy Instruments: Sounds from the court of King James I (★★★½) - CD review
  •  Home


  1. Wonderful as it was, I'm afraid this wasn't the first Lincoln performance. That was around 2000 (I'm afraid I've lost the details) by Uppingham School forces. Colin Walsh directed the cathedral choir in the Narthex at the west end - a fine spacial effect. It wasn't as grand as Saturday's performance, but powerful as this great work always is.

  2. It was, of course, the first performance by Lincolnshire forces. And about time!


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