The War Requiem, Op. 66, is a large-scale setting of the Requiem composed by Benjamin Britten mostly in 1961 and completed in January 1962. Edward Christian-Hare attends a performance of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Chorus of Wales’ rendition of The War Requiem in St David’s Hall to review the night.
Such a complex and large-scale work demands careful interpretation and execution. As a pacifist who lost friends in the Second World War, the War Requiem was Britten’s impassioned cry against conflict – in his own words, ‘an act of reparation’. Premiered in 1962, it gathered poignancy as the semicentenary of the outbreak of World War I approached, and public outrage against the atrocities in Vietnam grew.
But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this work is the manner in which it blends orchestral forces with both the English and Latin languages – a trying task for a composer. And, indeed, for a conductor. Mark Wigglesworth, who has a wealth of experience conducting choral pieces, largely managed to keep everyone together. But in the Offertorium, he encountered problems when an ill-practised tenor and baritone failed to end phrases simultaneously. Despite them struggling to perform well together, Allan Clayton and Roman Trekel were striking singers individually. Clayton gave a captivating rendering of Wilfred Owen’s verse in the Requiem aeternam, while Wigglesworth controlled the dynamics of the musicians around him sufficiently enough to highlight it.
The Dies Irae saw brilliant orchestral explosions, which soprano Emma Bell soared above in an arresting forte. Having stepped in at the last minute to replace Susan Bullock, Bell deserves special mention for such a thrilling performance. Stood at the base of the main choir, she demonstrated her extensive skill in singing against powerful orchestras; it didn’t feel like she had to compete with anyone.
Wigglesworth’s command of the choir was excellent in the Dies Irae, with superb crescendos evidencing cautious practice. Trekel did well to project his voice above the chamber orchestra, who were too loud at points. His parts with Clayton felt more accomplished this time, and the tenor was altogether clearer than he had been initially.
Nia Llewelyn Jones, who was conducting the off-stage Gloucester Cathedral Choristers, came into her own in the Offertorium. The sound of the children’s choir drifted out and mingled with the organ, advancing toward the audience cloaked in that ethereal tone we associate with young voices.
The Sanctus, again, showcased Wigglesworth’s skill in controlling the volume of the choir. There was an electrifying blast of ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ after a tantalising crescendo with Bell and the chorus. When Bell sang alone, she formed a subtle relationship between herself and the percussion family, extolling Britten’s unusual musical language. Gradually, the choral might made way for Trekel, whose voice soothed the enormity of the preceding sounds as it was meant to.
In the Agnus Dei, Clayton performed well in that he seemed to be concerned about himself in relation to certain instruments – particularly the oboe in the chamber orchestra. Not only this, but he made sure he sang absolutely together with the choir, which was important as the piece began to draw to a close. With her characteristically sweeping bowings, Lesley Hatfield led the chamber orchestra to impressive heights of expression, previously unheard that evening.
Unfortunately, the Libera me was not as remarkable as it could have been. Whilst the opening chorus burst out passionately, and the syncopation was handled adequately, the choir overpowered. The percussion suffered from this oversight more than anyone else. On top of this, Trekel tended to mould the poetry to fit his projection too much, which damaged the quality of the words. Sometimes, less is more.
Having said that, the alternating ‘Let us sleep now’ between Trekel and Clayton really carried, even against the competing noise behind them. Given the supremacy of her voice, Bell once again rose above all, her high voice complementing the poignancy of a work that remains relevant today.
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Edward Christian-Hare is an avid contributor to Wales Arts Review.
Header photo, Benjamin Britten