"My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is to warn." The words are Wilfred Owen's, inscribed in the score of Britten's War Requiem.
"My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is to warn." The words are Wilfred Owen's, inscribed in the score of Britten's War Requiem. Britten's work is not performed often; the numbers required are a deterrent. But it is an irony that it takes the 60th anniversary of VE Day to bring out a 20th-century masterpiece whose message remains constantly relevant.
The London Philharmonic pulled out all the stops. Apart from the top soloists - Christine Brewer, Anthony Dean Griffey and Gerald Finley - there were 200 members of the London Philharmonic Choir, plus the Tiffin Boys' Choir of two dozen, a chamber orchestra of 12, the full orchestra and two conductors: Neville Creed and Kurt Masur.
Britten wrote the work for the consecration, in 1962, of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral. His decision to interweave poems by Wilfred Owen, a poet of the Great War, with the Latin Mass for the dead was a stroke of genius. It was also a masterstroke to write the Requiem for a Russian, Galina Vishnevskaya, a German, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and an Englishman, Peter Pears. The significance at the time was obvious. This LPO performance fielded North American-born soloists, greatly removed from the feeling of the time.
Gerald Finley seemed uneasy at first, uncertain how operatic to be, failing to catch the ambiguity of text and singing almost too beautifully. It was not until almost the end, with "I am the enemy you killed, my friend", that Finley really found his stride. Griffey was the more expressive soloist, his diction impeccable, his "One ever hangs where shelled roads part" within the "Agnus Dei" almost unbearably moving, sung as if a it was a lullaby. Brewer, too, was in magnificent voice, particularly in the "Lacrimosa", soaring over the huge forces although she was placed far behind the orchestra. She seemed positively to weep the notes in the "Benedictus".
But it was the massive chorus that underpinned the whole event. From their opening whispers of "requiem'" to the awkwardly jolly "Quam olim Abrahae", the urgency of their involvement was palpable.
Britten writes for huge forces but much of the score is delicately written. Masur drew both blazing and heartbreakingly intimate playing from the LPO, while Creed directed the excellent chamber ensemble accompanying the male soloists superbly. A deeply affecting performance of a profoundly disturbing work.