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Truly chilling

DAVID THOMPSON listens to Britten's 'War Requiem' in London


It is difficult to imagine a sterner test of the Barbican Hall's revamped acoustics than the Britten War Requiem, with its three distinct sound perspectives, now separate, now combined, vying to make their very different statements of intent. How marvellous, then, to be able to report that, from where I was sitting in this recent performance, every nuance registered, and Britten's visionary conception emerged as he must have ideally imagined it. So thanks to the new engineering, and Leonard Slatkin's meticulous overall control, we were treated to an almost ideal presentation of this fascinating work, and able to evaluate it anew.

What emerged powerfully, in this performance, was the cynicism and anger of Britten's anti-war feelings. Other performances I have heard, in less clear acoustics, have conveyed the impression that the grand ceremonial pomp of the Latin Requiem Mass was the context for Owen's bitter poetry. Here, the reverse seemed to be the case, with the sleep of the ending troubled, and not resolved into the eternal rest of the Latin Christian prayer. Time and again, the wonderfully alert chamber group pierced the larger, blander sounds of ceremonial mourning with raw-edged realism. I was reminded of the bitter cynicism of Dulce et decorum est, an Owen poem Britten did not set. Its message was overtly and uncomfortably implicit. The serene sounds of the childrens' choir -- clear, but so, so distant, seemed to underline the remoteness of innocence in our troubled world, and the effect was truly chilling.

This was a marvellous performance, not only in technical execution, but in the new perspectives it offered. Although, as in Britten's original concept, there were soloists from three nations, British, German and Russian, there was certainly no attempt at cloning here. John Mark Ainsley, with his heroic delivery lent far more credibility to the tenor solos than I have heard before. I could, for once, believe that he really might have 'walked quite friendly up to death'. Thomas Mohr, his fine baritone allied to a sensitive perception of the words was the ideal foil. Perched precariously, but elegantly at the back of the platform, Elena Prokina delivered the dramatic soprano lines with a thrilling ring, riding the massed forces with room to spare. The BBC Symphony Chorus must surely now be our flagship symphonic choir. They rose to the considerable demands with a will, and the virtuosic fugue of the Quam olim Abrahae, and the dense complexities of the Libera me were highlights of the evening.

And what a fine orchestra the BBC Symphony is sounding these days. The Slatkin years promise rich rewards.

It was good to hear the New London Children's choir. The mixed voices, (as opposed to boys alone), added much to the distanced eeriness of their contribution. They managed their often tricky lines with commendable skill.

This was a poignant and disturbing concert, especially in its timing on the day before Remembrance Sunday (it was repeated on the day itself in Birmingham). I am sure that Leonard Slatkin, as an American, did not miss the significance of this. Certainly, he was inspired to make us all look again at this rich and disquieting score. Perhaps Britten was more daring than we imagined, in unleashing this uncomfortable work on a civic occasion, attended by the Great and the Good, all those years ago.

Copyright © 25 November 2001 David Thompson, Eastwood, Essex, UK




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