Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Poetry in the Pity: Britten's War Requiem with the LSO

I was not in the forefront of the standing ovation for Sunday's performance of the War Requiem. This was because I was shaking and my legs had gone rubbery. My Really Shameful Confession is that, in listening to recordings, my admiration for the ambition and intelligence of the piece remained somewhat detached, not to say dutiful. The reading provided by Gianandrea Noseda and the London Symphony Orchestra was taut and unsparing. Strings shivered; there were fearful fanfares and sad bugles; the percussion was appropriately terrifying. There were angular, angry crescendos that were as much barbed wire as cathedral spires; pianissimi hushed with reverence, and hushed with fear. The London Symphony Chorus was likewise superb, with sharp diction, impressive dynamic nuance, and great attention to the needs of the text (the eerie "Dies irae" comes to mind particularly.) The American Boychoir, performing offstage, contributed sensitive work as well.

Despite the size of the forces involved, I'm tempted to call it a spare reading of the score; it was meditative, not indulgent, and free of false sentimentality. Sabina Cvilak has a rich, dark-hued soprano, which she used sensitively, most notably in "Lacrimosa." Ian Bostridge and Simon Keenlyside did brilliant work together and apart. There seemed nothing forced about the integration of the Owen settings, here (which I haven't always found to be the case, but this is quite possibly All My Fault.) I heard the Owen and the Britten in a new way (full text here.) I find it hard to imagine how Bostridge's performance could have been bettered; he sang with a wonderfully varied palette of vocal color, and exquisite phrasing. Keenlyside also gave a performance of great intelligence and emotional power. "Be slowly lifted up" was a highlight. "Strange Meeting" was sung with beautiful interiority by both. Their sensitivity to the language was such that I thought I would gladly hear them simply read Owen's poems. Singling out further particulars of the performance could be an endless task. Forming a perspective on the whole that isn't chiefly shaped by emotional shock may be a long process. So, I beg your pardon for the incoherence, Gentle Readers. Less tear-stained prose to resume shortly.


  1. The War Requiem usually has that effect on me. Owen's poetry has been part of my life for four decades and still tears me apart. I can just imagine the effect of two interpreters as sensitive as Bostridge and Keenleyside.

  2. @operaramblings Thanks for the reassurance that this being reduced to a mess isn't just a result of my imperfect knowledge of the piece. The poetry is of extraordinary power (quite a brave thing to make such bleak art a part of your life.) They were alert to it all: the anger, the horror, the resigned compassion.

  3. It started when Owen's poems were one of my set texts for Eng Lit 'O' level. Some of them really get under one's skin. There's a rather nice limited edition of nine of the poems with prints by Nicholas Parry; "The Seared Conscience". It includes several of the War Requiem poems though, alas, not "Strange Meeting" which I think is the finest of all. The music is also one of those pieces that one can get a bit obsessive about. I saw the TSO perform it on Remembrance Day two years ago with Christine Brewer, Michael Schade and Russell Braun. It was pretty special.

  4. @operaramblings Ah... the experience of discovering an author of that caliber is always special; thanks for sharing. I'll have to look for that book. The performance sounds like something very special indeed (the more I hear of Russell Braun, the more impressed I am.)

  5. Hard to find "The Seared Conscience" as there were only 95 copies printed but there are lots of editions of Owen's poetry or WW1 anthologies with him in. RB is pretty special. I saw him sing Oreste in Iphigenia in Tauris earlier this month with Susan Graham. It was terrific. I've seen Schade turn in some good performances too. I especially like him on the DVD of Purcell's King Arthur from Salzburg.

  6. @operaramblings Ah, I see... well, I'll be on the lookout for some of the less limited publications, then. Glad to hear you enjoyed your IiT; I loved Graham in it here. Somehow (!) I don't find much time for opera DVDs, but I'll note that Purcell for reference.


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