Music / War Requiem Usher Hall

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The problem with any performance of the War Requiem is that behind the immediate experience of the piece on the night lurks the overwhelming presence of the composer's own definitive recording, made only months after the premiere, and etched on the memories of most listeners. Any individual reading is put in the slightly unfair position of having to live up to that ideal.

Monday's Edinburgh performance, directed by Donald Runnicles, came pretty close at times. The Usher Hall, both acoustically and atmospherically, is not the perfect venue for the work, and the Requiem's haunting opening gestures were not enhanced by the Hall's policy of letting latecomers come in, banging doors and whispering. Again, the venue's relative lack of size meant that the RSNO Junior Chorus's excellent singing and splendidly clear Scottish diction were not as remote as one might have wished, and oddly balanced with the other forces. In the "Dies Irae", the Edinburgh Festival Chorus sang out valiantly, but there was something about the pacing of the thing that made it less than totally apocalyptic.

Up to this point, the performance was struggling a little to establish the work's unique atmosphere; for me, the whole thing really came to life with the first entry of the German baritone Thomas Quasthoff, with Wilfred Owen's "Bugles sang". Not only did he make a superb sound, but his emotional commitment was total, and he projected a sense of great sorrow and compassion in his singing of all his solo passages. In his duets with tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson, "Out there", "Then Abram rose" and, above all, "Strange Meeting", the two voices wove and blended together almost uncannily as one. Johnson himself sang his own solos with the expressive clarity and beautiful phrasing we have come to expect from him, perhaps to most poignant effect in the agonisingly moving "One ever hangs". The evening was largely made by the soloists, and the last of the trio, Russian soprano, Elena Prokina, was equally strong, with a voice as powerful and ringing as Vishnevskaya's, and perhaps rather better intonation.

As if inspired by the heroic efforts of the soloists, the chorus really let rip and were gloriously brazen in the "Sanctus", and the whole performance achieved the kind of impetus and sense of inevitability, leading into the final searing "Libera Me', that this work must have, to succeed. Runnicles's pacing of the long, gradual build-up in this final section was masterly, and when the climax came, it was shattering. The long-held resonance, leading into the sublime setting of "Strange Meeting", was perfectly controlled, and tenor and baritone excelled themselves in their portrayal of this last, bitter-sweet, encounter. When the tension finally released itself in the great overwhelming waves of the "In Paradisum", and the concluding, almost unbearable reprise of the "Requiem aeternam", it did almost seem, in the words of Peter Shaffer, reviewing the first performance, to "make criticism impertinent". "I hope it'll make people think a bit," the composer once wrote. On this occasion it certainly did.

LAURENCE HUGHES

music

War Requiem

Usher Hall

Monday's Edinburgh performance, directed by Donald Runnicles, came pretty close at times. The Usher Hall, both acoustically and atmospherically, is not the perfect venue for the work, and the Requiem's haunting opening gestures were not enhanced by the Hall's policy of letting latecomers come in, banging doors and whispering. Again, the venue's relative lack of size meant that the RSNO Junior Chorus's excellent singing and splendidly clear Scottish diction were not as remote as one might have wished, and oddly balanced with the other forces. In the "Dies Irae", the Edinburgh Festival Chorus sang out valiantly, but there was something about the pacing of the thing that made it less than totally apocalyptic.

Up to this point, the performance was struggling a little to establish the work's unique atmosphere; for me, the whole thing really came to life with the first entry of the German baritone Thomas Quasthoff, with Wilfred Owen's "Bugles sang". Not only did he make a superb sound, but his emotional commitment was total, and he projected a sense of great sorrow and compassion in his singing of all his solo passages. In his duets with tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson, "Out there", "Then Abram rose" and, above all, "Strange Meeting", the two voices wove and blended together almost uncannily as one. Johnson himself sang his own solos with the expressive clarity and beautiful phrasing we have come to expect from him, perhaps to most poignant effect in the agonisingly moving "One ever hangs". The evening was largely made by the soloists, and the last of the trio, Russian soprano, Elena Prokina, was equally strong, with a voice as powerful and ringing as Vishnevskaya's, and perhaps rather better intonation.

As if inspired by the heroic efforts of the soloists, the chorus really let rip and were gloriously brazen in the "Sanctus", and the whole performance achieved the kind of impetus and sense of inevitability, leading into the final searing "Libera Me', that this work must have, to succeed. Runnicles's pacing of the long, gradual build-up in this final section was masterly, and when the climax came, it was shattering. The long-held resonance, leading into the sublime setting of "Strange Meeting", was perfectly controlled, and tenor and baritone excelled themselves in their portrayal of this last, bitter-sweet, encounter. When the tension finally released itself in the great overwhelming waves of the "In Paradisum", and the concluding, almost unbearable reprise of the "Requiem aeternam", it did almost seem, in the words of Peter Shaffer, reviewing the first performance, to "make criticism impertinent". "I hope it'll make people think a bit," the composer once wrote. On this occasion it certainly did.

LAURENCE HUGHES

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