Britten War Requiem, Royal Albert Hall, London
Tuesday 11 November 2008
Every performance of Britten's War Requiem is an occasion - such is the indelible power of a genuine masterpiece.
But the Royal Albert Hall on Remembrance Sunday in the week marking the 90th Anniversary of the Armistice with the Royal Opera Orchestra and Chorus and top-flight soloists - unforgettable or what? Well, that rather depended upon where you were sitting. Amongst the press corps at its apex this capacious hall once again proved both a revelation and a curse.
For the bigger picture of Britten's Requiem for the fallen, as envisaged by Antonio Pappano, the tolling death knell, the murmured imploration of voices in darkness, the hopeful enlightenment of the young and innocent from on high - these astonishing sounds seemed suspended in time and space as the opening pages of the work took hold. That Britten conceived the piece acoustically to operate on three distinct planes of sound makes the Albert Hall enough of a surrogate cathedral to fulfil his wishes. But the real masterstroke comes with his interpolation into the Mass of Wilfred Owens' war poems. Now it's personal and intimate and unflinchingly immediate. Aurally, we pull focus on them. Not easy when you are sitting so far away as to be unable to share their confidential tone.
Ian Bostridge and Thomas Hampson did them proud, though, weighing the words judiciously, projecting their painful home truths simply and honestly. But from my seat in the hall the instrumental colours were simply too diffuse to register Britten's miraculous pointing of the words. One juxtaposition still worked its magic: soprano Christine Brewer's achingly beautiful inflection of the "weeping" vocal line of the Lacrimosa alternating with Owen's "Move him into the sun", the alternation growing ever more urgent as yet another young life ebbs away. Was Britten ever more inspired?
And, of course, you would expect Pappano and his Royal Opera forces to inject the requisite theatricality into the big set pieces, most notably the gathering of many voices in the tumultuous Sanctus and still more so the Libera me where the ride to the abyss was suitably precipitous and the indescribable climax where Britten flings down the mother of all minor chords and voices wail in torment once again shook the hall and all of us in it.
The final poem, "Strange Meeting", reunites enemies in death. As Owen himself said: "All the poet can do is warn".
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