Tuesday, 27 March 2012

War Requiem, Philharmonia, Maazel, RFH

Last night's performance of Britten's much admired large-scale setting of the Requiem Mass comes just weeks shy of the 50th anniversary of its premiere in Coventry (right). It appears that the performance wan't intended to mark this anniversary, though a sober work such as this is appropriate for a weekend in Lent usually peppered with performances of Bach Passions, Handel Messiahs and the like. I mention this as the War Requiem is undeniably an event piece, a concert work demanding the sort of performing corps that renders it impractical in the usual run of the repertory. It is also a piece whose subject matter and treatment is very serious, requiring great commitment and a certain belief from performers and audiences alike. The Philharmonia, overlooked by the couple-of-hundred strong Philharmonia Chorus, shared a crowded stage with the twelve-piece chamber orchestra and the male soloists, Mark Padmore and Matthias Goerne. The boy choristers' choir (from Tiffin School) sang from the royal box. The sound in tumultuous moments was overwhelming, and in quiet moments no less so for the hush. It's testament to Britten's writing that the piece doesn't swiftly degenerate into an hour and a half of sub-forte tidal flow.

It's also to Britten's great credit that the piece delivers its emotional cache unerringly. This performance was a catalogue of mixed blessings and, like any other large scale event, had its own fair share of force majeure - an orchestral player taken sick mid-performance, a rogue ringtone, etc. Not only is the (still) modern musical idiom true and affecting but also the rhetoric and the drama of the work are intense and compelling, gripping the attention even in the face of distractions on or off the stage.

The War Requiem is a remarkably English work of art. Everything about the piece, including the nature of its gestation and composition in the mind of this most pungently English of composers is there in the score. Its wistful semitonal clashes aren't simply a product of the thematic centrality of the tritone but also of Britten's favoured, fresh Lydian fourth, the whole-tone melodiousness that breathes in the North Sea air and looks out over the flat, open Fenland countryside. This is the very coinage of the England that Britten was compelled to return to in 1942 from pacifist exile in America, despite the threat of statutory sanction, the England that inspired his great war time masterpiece about a misfit in the East Anglian community, Peter Grimes.

One also feels the drama of Grimes, indeed most of the drama of Britten's considerable operatic canon to this point. The War Requiem is, after all, a dramatic work well within the tram lines of previous monuments of the genre, and most importantly that of Verdi. Part of Britten's strength is not eschewing the simple dramatic gesture, when it's appropriate. Just as the mob temperament in Grimes (as the Borough emerge from church) is achieved by inflaming the music by semitonal steps, so the first of the two climactic arrivals at G minor in the terrifying Libera Me can seem a little forced (especially given the serial rigour of the rest of the work) but cannot be argued with in the moment. The contiguity of Britten's musical thought also continues after the period of the War Requiem - the gamelan sounds of the opening of the Sanctus is the sonic home of Owen Wingrave, the overtly pacifist hero of Britten's penultimate opera a decade later.

However, it's the text, the poems of Wilfred Owen, that is the loam in which the piece's power is gestated. In last night's performance, the only British - English - soloist of the performance, Mark Padmore, was the first to genuinely summon the electricity of the piece with the setting of Owen's 'Futility' (in the Dies Irae). 'Move him into the sun', the tenor sings, and in Padmore's hands the entreaty is febrile, intimate, reminding us that this isn't a text describing the horror of war so much as a sombre record of its dead participants. Here's footage of the performers from the premiere*, tenor Peter Pears and the composer conducting at this very moment in the music:



* meaning the performers in this clip performed at the premiere. There's no indication that the footage is from the premiere itself, though it looks as if it is one of the performances given around the country in the year following the Coventry premiere.

When 'the kind old sun' is found impotent, the arc set in motion already looks forward to the final chorus, 'Let us sleep now...' (this final chorus also employing Britten's Lydian D major-in-A juxtaposition, the same sound-world as for the Elysian music of the later Death in Venice).

Britten's own idea for staging the work put into practice in his hugely successful recording (if not entirely realised at the premiere) was for there to be a soloist from each of the countries directly affected by the conflict of the second world war - a Briton and a German with a Russian soprano. Interestingly, this is the most overt statement the piece has to make about its relation to the second world war. The piece, with its Owen texts, end-of-empire bugle calls and bitterly satirical side drum invoking the mechanisation of gunfire, is very much a piece reflecting the horror - the shock and loss of innocence - of the first world war.

The great, novel tragedy of the second world war - the Shoah, or Holocaust - is not referred to in the War Requiem. Perhaps this is because, unlike the central meditation on fruitlessness and pity of internecine conflict contained in Owen's 'Strange Meeting' at the heart of the work, the mass genocide of European Jews  was a more clear-cut crime. I suspect that Britten restricted himself to the overview of European conflict mapped out by Owen's Anglicised experiences-in-poetry to retain a focus to the meditation of the work. Certainly the composer, who travelled with Yehudi Menuhin to give a concert in Belsen after the war was not negligent of the great atrocity perpetrated against Jews.

I mention this to try and make sense of the overall impression of a well-rendered but never ardent performance. Is it that, for a Jewish-American conductor and an American soprano, placed with the choir as a sort of heraldic leader of the chorus, the vital, indelibly English content of the work was at a remove? Was there a disconnect - that the piece, on the face of it, was brought into being as balm for a dreadful conflict, but whose freshest wound is not directly attended? Is the sense of compassion and reconciliation within such a specific historical vehicle too odd a pairing for performers of a different perspective, possibly predisposed to focus on the irreconcilable, principally criminal narrative of mass murder? It is, surely, difficult to see how a couplet such as
when each proud fighter brags
he wars on Death - for life; not men - for flags.
sits with those whose account of the conflict is recounted by civilians with numbers crudely (and cruelly) tattooed on their forearms.

This occured to me as I had a new experience of the work itself. Though familiar with the piece, in this performance I was most touched by the final lines of Owen's The End, as sung by Goerne:
And when I hearken to the Earth, she saith:
'My fiery hearts shrinks, aching. It is death.
Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified
Nor my titanic tears, the sea, be dried.'
This is the bleakest, least resolved music of the work (and was beautifully played by the chamber orchestra in this performance). On three occasions the apparently irresolute tritone that opens the piece is resolved in a pointedly cathartic choral. Not here. It is, despite that, the most beautiful music, tender with humanity rather than hushed with piety.

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