At the risk of attracting a particularly hostile post-bag this week, Britten's War Requiem is, in my opinion, a far from successful work. With the exception of the focused a cappella of the Kyrie and Pie Jesu sections - which might have been written by Howells or Vaughan Williams and are none the worse for that - and the agreeably vital passages for children's choir, much of the mass setting is derivative; plundering the Requiems of Mozart, Verdi, Fauré and others for catch-all conventions of colour and tone. That the Dies Irae should terrify seems self-evident. But who says that Confutatis maledictis must be taken by tenors and basses? Who says that the female voice embodies supplication? And where is it written that Quam olim Abrahae must be set as a fugue?
These sections are rewarding to sing - which, together with the post-patriotic yet profoundly English quality of the work, explains its perennity in the choral society canon - but what do they mean? Are they not just so many ticks in so many boxes? And how can they appear anything but generic by comparison with the arias for the tenor and bass soloists? Here, in Wilfred Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth and Strange Meeting, is the emotional meat of this work. Here is its authenticity. Here is its authority. For here is the voice of a man for whom the horrors of war were something smelt and felt, not extrapolated from a news reel. And here is the music of a composer who had the courage to engage with a text beyond his experience.
My coolness towards this national treasure has been, until now, a guilty secret. You see, I'd like to like the War Requiem more than I do. In particular, I'd like to be convinced by the climactic frame-meets-canvas bringing together of its various materials in the Agnus Dei. But if Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra can't make me change my mind, I don't think it's going to happen. Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy their performance in Prom 22, even after the gloomy doodlings of Britten's brief Voluntary on Tallis's Lamentation (premiered the same evening by organist Timothy Bond). Far from it. With due allowances for the acoustic handicap of the Royal Albert Hall and soprano soloist Susan B Anthony's wayward intonation, this was a magnificent War Requiem: beautifully delivered by the London Symphony Chorus and Finchley Children's Music Group, faultlessly played by both the tutti and chamber sections of the orchestra, and quite fascinatingly delineated by Davis.
Summing up the special qualities of a particular conductor is a dangerously subjective business. But what I find most striking about Davis in Britten is his apparent impartiality. He does not tell you what to feel, does not apologise for excess or deficit, does not attempt to "make good" the fractures which others might try to smooth over. And, like his January performance of Peter Grimes, this War Requiem had signal clarity, warts and all. If the end result was a unique First World War cantata grafted onto an off-the-peg mass, so be it. The individual elements - some of them equal to Britten's finest operatic writing, some of them terribly routine - shone to the best of their abilities, and the finest of these were superb: Simon Keenlyside's rich, solemn reading of Owen's lyrics, Ian Bostridge's fluting, fluttering anxiety, and the duets between them that seemed to me to encapsulate the characters of soldier poet (Keenlyside) and pacifist composer (Bostridge). Strange meeting, indeed. An admirable and deeply memorable performance of a faulty work.
What with last week's Birmingham Opera Group production of Curlew River, the Royal Opera and LSO performances of Peter Grimes, a brace of Lucretias, and the BBC Philharmonic's performance of his Violin Concerto with Maxim Vengerov last Tuesday, it's been a good season for Britten. I'd expected the worst from Prom 25, but the BBC Philharmonic's violins were quite transformed from their appearance of last year: precise, lustrous and nicely vertical of tone. Whether this was down to the influence of conductor Vassily Sinaisky or a result of listening to Vengerov is impossible to judge, but if the same trick can be done with their irrepressible brass section, the orchestra will be better placed to compete with fellow-Mancunians, the Hallé.
Vengerov is currently promoting his new recording of the Britten and an inevitable odour of over-familiarity consequently hangs over his performance. It's a shame because this work, written in the wake of the Alban Berg's death, engages with the imminence of World War II as powerfully and sincerely as the Latin sections of the War Requiem fail to engage with its legacy. I'd like to hear Anne Sophie Mutter play it but Vengerov's interpretation still has significant plus points and the contrast between his effortless projection of Britten's Iberian laments and Pinchas Zukerman's heavy-limbed Elgar (Prom 13) was striking. I didn't stay for Ravel's Tzigane: a tasteless addendum to a serious work, albeit a fitting bookend to the garish onanism of Szymanowski's early Concert Overture in E major, which opened the programme. Two words you never want to hear in the same sentence? Juvenilia and Szymanovski. Ah me, where else but at the Proms.Reuse content