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War Requiem

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Bach Choir/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall

”The scribes on all the people shove and bawl allegiance to the state, But they who love the greater love lay down their life; they do not hate.” 

While politicians put aside an hour of their time each November to stand before the cenotaph, give platitudes and continue the prosecution of more institutionalised killing, Britten’s War Requiem brings us up against a truly pacifist contemplation of the whole horrible business.

Despite Britten’s unerring sense of the theatrical, and the mighty climax that is the “Libera me,” the work is an unsensationalised meditation that reflects the pity more than the horror of war.  For that reason, it’s best to hear it in the concert hall, not in a half-baked staging that strains for dramatic effect, something we’re threatened with during the coming Britten celebrations.  Trying to turn choral work into theatre hardly ever works.

There was an added poignancy in the Bach Choir and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance this autumn, with the music world on the verge of marking the composer's centenary throughout 2013, and, more personally, the recent death of their vice-president and long-time colleague Sir Philip Ledger, to whom the evening was dedicated.

The line-up of solo vocalists was stellar: Sally Matthews, John Mark Ainsley and Alan Opie, although the latter’s nasal delivery and unclear diction are an indication that this fine artist’s career may be coming to an end.  Miss Matthews sang with her usual purity, as did the cherubs of the Eltham College Trebles, and Ainsley displayed the impeccable Britten voice we’ve come to expect, while the massed choir acquitted itself well.  The Royal Philharmonic, under David Hill, played, at times, with less refinement than one would like in this work but raised the roof when appropriate.

Britten’s score suggests a wide range of influences, Verdi’s Requiem the most obvious but also with shades of Stravinsky in oratorio mode, Shostakovich in war mood and even Ravel, in the ladies’ chorus of the “Recordare.”  The War Requiem, with its unique mix of the latin mass and poems by Wilfred Owen, is a work that will never cease to move and awe, and we’ll no doubt have many opportunities to hear it over the coming year.

- Simon Thomas  


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