Hot on the heels of their superlative semi-staging of Peter Grimes two weeks' ago, the LPO and its music director Vladimir Jurowski have triumphed once again with an incendiary performance of Britten's War Requiem.
Britten went on the record as saying that he wanted performances of his paen to peace and reconciliation to be ‘special occasions', and no doubt he would have been pleased with this immaculately prepared, incredibly moving performance that left the capacity audience shell-shocked – the extended silence that followed the dying, hushed intonations of the Choir spoke volumes – and emotionally drained.
A committed pacifist, Britten intersperses the text of the Liturgical Latin Requiem Mass with a selection of Wilfred Owen's poems, which relate in part to the appropriate sections of the Mass, to telling effect. The forces required for this work are huge. There's a large orchestra, a chamber orchestra of twelve players, a large choir, an off-stage boys choir, and three soloists. The soprano sings with the main chorus, whilst the baritone and tenor soloists sing Britten's setting of Owen's poems with the chamber orchestra.
The three distinct groups interact with each other, but only come together in the final movement. This work makes huge demands of all involved, but all those were superbly met by the forces deployed at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday night. Chief architect of the success was Vladimir Jurowski who conducted the main orchestra with an incisive brilliance that resulted in extraordinarily accomplished playing form all sections of the LPO. Their playing was matched by the thrilling and committed singing of the London Philharmonic Choir who had been well drilled by their Artistic Director Neville Creed. Whether singing in a barely audible pianissimo at the opening ‘Requiem aeternam', or at full throttle in the ‘Dies irae' they made light of Britten's tricky choral writing and never put a foot wrong. Soaring above them, Russian soprano Evelina Dobraceva sang fearlessly and heroically.
Creed also conducted the chamber orchestra of twelve, pacing all the Owen settings faultlessly and in the process drew astonishingly assured playing from each instrumentalist. British tenor Ian Bostridge and German bass-baritone Matthias Goerne are both seasoned and acclaimed interpreters of this work, and although Goerne took time to find his stride (his heavily-accented English was at times hard to decipher), both rose to the occasion and succeeded in ensuring that their contributions provided the emotional heart of the work, as Britten intended.
Bostridge was particularly telling in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth', practically spitting out the words with venom, and although I have often found him mannered in the past, here he was on blinding form, finding the appropriate sense of despair in ‘Futility'. Similarly Goerne was most effective in ‘The End' and the final, conciliatory ‘Strange Meeting' – indeed I can't remember being as moved by the final pages of this extraordinary work as I was here.
With the Trinity Boys Choir providing a suitably ethereal contribution from off-stage, all the elements combined to make this performance of War Requiem one to cherish, and whose emotional impact will stay with me for a long time to come.