14 June 2015

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra: Britten, War Requiem, Op 66

Melbourne Symphony  Orchestra et al
Hamer Hall, Melbourne
Thursday, Friday 11 June and 12 June 2015

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is layered upon layer with meaning. Everything is deliberate: text, score, performance.
Sir Colin Davis and the MSO found all three on Thursday night.

I admit I’ve been an MSO refusenik for years. Too many dull performances from players described by one wit as “Check the watch at the end of the second movement after interval. Will I get the 10.15 train?” I saw Graham Abbott conduct a Keys to Music on Hayden’s Farewell with the MSO violins out of tune. A Brahms Symphony on the car radio; god, that’s awful, who’s playing it? MSO. Right! An Elgar (I think it was) Symphony in Hamer Hall a year or so ago that was listless.

I decided to risk the MSO with Britten because I’m a bit of a Britten tragic and I’d had to cancel seats for the War Requiem in London last year. I hadn’t researched the Wilfred Owen poetry (as my wife had) so I decided to treat the performance as pure music – a symphony if you like. All I knew was that Britten had written the Requiem for the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral. The Luftwaffe had fire bombed the C14 building on 14 November 1940.

Churchill Cathedral H 14250" by Horton (Capt) - War Office official photographer - This is photograph H 14250 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Churchill_CCathedral_H_14250.jpg#/media/File:Churchill_CCathedral_H_14250.jpg

I was stunned. It was a gut-grabber; absolutely visceral and for the entire performance. I could make out about four words – one was “requiem” – among the huge forces: a full and a chamber orchestra, a full and a children’s choir, a chamber organ and three soloists (soprano, tenor, baritone). I once heard Gotterdammerung out of sight of the subtitles and I fell in love (with the music and Lisa Gasteen). It was not just a case of huge forces. The MSO players found that which Sir Andrew demanded of them: emotional intensity and control in equal measure.

I went away and did some homework work before the repeat, direct broadcast. The ABCFM engineers, Nicholas Mierisch and Alexander Stinson, had microphones over the middle of the full (actually augmented) orchestra so that’s where I “was” on Friday night, roughly beside the bloke who belted the tubular bells (= church bells) whose specialty was the diabolus in musica augmented fourth interval between C and F♯ (as in Night on Bald Mountain). That devil’s interval appears throughout the Requiem even mockingly in the Requiem aeternam. The boys’ choir/chamber organ were the angelic chorus, the full choir sang the requiem text with the Russian soprano, Tatiana Pavlovskaya standing in place of Galina Vishnevskaya who was refused permission to sing the first performance of 30 May 1960. The English tenor Ian Bostridge stood in for Peter Pears and Dietrich Henschel the German tenor stood in for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Britten (r) and  Pears 1954 in Venedig

Britten had built allusions to the futility and the horror of war throughout the entire work and they were very evident, standing in the middle of Hamer Hall’s platform. The emotionally charged opening male chorus ppp against the double bases and cellos, Britten’s homage to Verdi’s Requiem in his own, the Owen poetry (for example, “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?’ and “But the old man would not and slew his son, - and half the seed of Europe one by one.”), the conversation between the two already dead, opposing soldiers finally singing together “Let us sleep now …” and the soprano’s razor edge in and against the chorus.

This is where the expert writer closes with something pithy. In the absence of anything clever, I’ll simply refer to the nights’ opening piece, Elegy for String Orchestra in memoriam of Rupert Brooke of 1915 by the Australian Frederick Septimus Kelly. Kelly participated in Brooke’s burial on Skyros on 23 April 1916. He, Kelly, 35, was shot in the head during the Battle of the Somme in November 2015. He is buried in Martinstart. 

The programming of the piece was inspired; its performance was superb.

see also:
Kildea Paul, Benjamin Britten A Life in the Twentieth Century, Allen Lane, London, 2013
2013 High Resolution Remaster of the 1963 orginal:
Single CD / Rehearsal CD / Blu-ray Audio
Decca Cat No.0289 478 5433 3
Galina Vishnevskaya Peter Pears Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Bach Choir, Melos Ensemble, London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Conductor: Benjamin Britten

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