War Requiem at Leeds Town Hall Reviewed

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (1962), Performed at Leeds Town Hall, Sat 17th Nov 2018, by BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Leeds Festival Chorus, City of Glasgow Chorus, and Cantabile Choir conducted by Simon Wright; Soloists Evelina Dobraceva (Soprano), Andrew Staples (Tenor), and Benjamin Appl (Baritone)

Britten’s great masterpiece is given a performance full of immense skill and emotional power.

One can immediately tell from the forces required for this piece—three choirs, two orchestras, three soloists—as well as the fact that this one piece takes up a whole evening’s programme, that we are dealing with something of a behemoth. And, I must confess: as someone who acknowledged Britten’s genius more than I actually enjoyed any of its products (agreeing with Leeds composer Tim Knight that it was a difficult relationship which one has with Britten), and as someone with a mercilessly small bladder, I felt a great sense of fear when I read that the ninety-minute piece would have ‘no interval’. ‘Oh no,’ I thought, ‘What if it is insufferably dull, the seat is uncomfortable, etc., etc., and the evening seems less like ninety minutes than nine hours?’ I am glad to say, this fear was nothing but a vain fantasy. The performance was powerfully dramatic and engaged me and, I think, every audience member throughout.   

For one thing, I had not realised that the wonderful Benjamin Appl—whose last performance at the Howard Assembly Room I reviewed in the pages of Leeds Living, and whose concert remains one of the most dearly memorable of those I have been to—would be taking the Baritone solos, as his teacher, the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau did with Britten himself in the famous Decca recording of 1963.  I had not known the work of Tenor Andrew Staples and Soprano Evelina Dobraceva, but they were easily on a par with Appl’s wonderful tone and expressivity, and all three met the not inconsiderable challenges of this music with an apparent ease and grace.  I heard a few uncharitable souls complain of ‘warbling’ from Dobraceva on the way out of the Town Hall, but I must say, I heard none of this myself.  Britten strove to have a German, Russian and English soloist for each part in his original recording, and this performance respected that precedent, Appl being German, Staples English, and Dobraceva Russian.   

Benjamin Appl by Lars Borges. Photograph provided by Opera North.

Behind these three great soloists was an orchestra whose performance was consistently beyond reproach. The conductor, Simon Wright, directed a huge cast of musicians and brought all the complexity and massive proportion of the piece under an impressive control. It was a stirring moment when, after the piece’s already moving conclusion, Wright’s baton was left slightly aloft as a total silence covered the Hall for ten or fifteen seconds (only slightly damaged by the whisper of the loud music from outside in premature celebration of Christmas; something which rather clashed with our late observance of Remembrance). Indeed, I wished that this quasi-silence had lasted longer, or that there had been no applause at all, since the piece was beyond mere entertainment, and stood more with the genre of sacred music, which is not applauded except in the most pagan of settings.   

The three choirs all performed excellently, and I only felt occasionally that the bass singers were slightly on the quiet side—even in sections where the orchestra quieted—which may have been a result of their appearing glued to their scores, and thus singing to the paper rather than the audience. But overall these extremely high-level performers did nothing to disappoint. The offstage choir were wonderful, but were female sopranos, whereas Britten scored this section of the piece for Boys’ choir. Those familiar with Britten will know how important children’s music was to his professional life, and how important the voices of children are to his music.  This was then a slight shame, but only very slight.   

A few words on the piece itself: Britten composed this work on a huge scale, yet somehow at the same time manages to make excellent use of the lightness of texture which is one of his great virtues. This is because the work is organised across three distinct but frequently overlapping planes: the main group consists of the orchestra, choirs, and soprano soloist, who all take the traditional Requiem text and material. Next, the tenor and baritone sing the Owen poems in the persons of two soldiers—a semi-dramatic flourish which is not surprising from this excellent opera composer. These two soloists are accompanied by a much smaller chamber orchestra—an intelligent choice, which throws Owen’s poetry and its pathos into high focus as the voices are given more space and clarity for intelligibility.  Finally, the offstage choir (with organ in the finale) represent a mysterious, unearthly music—as is often suggested by Britten’s use of features from Gregorian and liturgical chant in their parts—and, by the end, the heavenly, as they sing the ‘Chorus angelorum te suspiciat’ (‘May the choir of angels receive thee’).

Such a huge range of soundworlds allows this ninety minute piece to remain fascinating, moving, and spellbindingly dramatic throughout, as the music proceeds through all sorts of concords, creeping discords, time signatures, flecks of Edwardian pastoral (which with a moving nostalgia remind one of Robert Graves’ phrase, ‘goodbye to all that’), pianissimi that verge on silence, and fortissimi which verge on the eardrum-shatteringly loud. The blend also of the modern text (Owen’s poetry was fewer than fifty years old when the piece was composed) with the ancient Requiem was a wonderful choice on Britten’s part, conjuring altogether an impression of the entirety of European Christendom in its rises and declines.

Undoubtedly, the highlight was the end, where the Requiem text’s plea that the departed rest in peace (‘requiescant in pace’) meld and interlace with the moving final words of Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’: ‘Let us sleep now…’, and the offstage choir’s ‘Chorus Angelorum’ (as mentioned above). The greatest vocal performances tend to make us yearn to revisit both the music of the composer, and, when it is done well, that of the poetry set, and even the works of the world evoked. I can say that I shall be revisiting both Britten and Owen—indeed, the Requiem text, too—with great interest in the coming days, weeks, and months—and, indeed, art from the first decades of the twentieth century of England in general.   

Photograph provided by Leeds Town Hall.

I had a concern about the organisation of the event, which was not quite up to Leeds Town Hall’s usual standard. I found myself in a crowded box office just fifteen minutes before the performance, manned by only one staff member, with a considerable queue leading outside into the November cold.  I was surrounded by disgruntled and vocal concert-goers who treated this poor member of staff as though it were her fault that she was thus left alone, for which she felt obliged to apologise, although there was no need. (I think I would have been inclined to turn away such discourteous attendees.)      

By the time I reached a desk where programmes were sold, there were no programmes left, leaving me to use nothing but my own fragmentary knowledge of the piece and its poems to navigate through what I feared would be a dense thicket of a work. In the end, however, the work was sufficiently transparent.

Feature photograph kindly provided by Leeds Town Hall

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