Sunday, May 13, 2007

Benjamin Britten "War Requiem"

"I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense conciliatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful." -Wilfred Owen 1893-1918

Thus is the quote from Wilfred Owen that prefaces the score of Benjamin Britten's monumental War Requiem, quite frankly one of the most powerful choral works of our time, or any time for that matter.

This massive work, scored for three soloists, a chamber orchestra, a full choir and main orchestra, and a boys’ choir and organ, was admirably performed this weekend by the St Louis Symphony, David Robertson conducting. Soloists were Christine Brewer, tenor Paul Groves and baritone Dwayne Croft.

The dramatic nature of the War Requiem always begs comparisons to that other Requiem Mass by an opera composer, Verdi's Requiem. More drama than straight liturgy, the War Requiem juxtaposes the Mass texts with the poetry of Wilfred Owen, written in the battlefields of World War I. Owen was killed in battle, just one week before the Armistice in 1918. Owen's chilling poetry offers an earthbound, cold and stark commentary on the sacred texts. Written for the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral, built in the shadow of the destroyed original, the massive work is as timely today as it was at its 1962 premiere.

The huge forces (200 on stage, the boys’ chorus and organ off stage as directed) were always under superb control by Maestro Robertson. Not a particularly fast performance, it nonetheless moved powerfully forward, each section building on the tension of the former.

The soloists were excellent. Brewer floated powerfully but always gracefully over the chorus, seated as she was in their midst. She was clarion clear and bell like in the ringing "Sanctus" and sweetly sad in the tender "Lacrimosa". She clearly loves this work and her devotion to it shows.

Tenor Paul Groves possesses a very clean, powerful and masculine tenor voice that was used to great dramatic effect. My quibble may be with baritone Dwayne Croft. His voice is dark and wide and thus did not always blend with Groves. This was especially disappointing as it muddied the pivotal line "and slew his son, and half the seed of Europe, one by one", lessening the devastating impact of the gruesome retelling of Abraham and Isaac. However, Croft more than redeemed himself in the long soliloquy "'None', said the other," save the undone years" in the "Libera Me"; perfectly dramatic, communicative and poignant.

The chorus was suitably powerful when needed, such as the ecstatic, spine-tingling hosannas of the "Sanctus" and in the dramatic "Dies Irae". I was reminded of a "Dies Irae" which I performed with the Dallas Turtle Creek Chorale. The director reminded us that this was the "day of wrath" and that if we should make the audience "pee in their pants with fear", he would consider the performance successful. This was one of those performances. The chorus could also whisper the opening "Requiem Aeternam" and negotiate the angelic chordal progression of the final "amen" with equal beauty of tone and color. The off stage Boys’ Chorus and organ was appropriately serene and other worldly.

Christine Brewer has recorded the War Requiem in the LPO Live series with Kurt Masur and the London Philharmonic. This was an all around better performance, more emotional and communicative. Robertson simply let the powerful work speak for itself.

With round trip airfare from Kansas City to St Louis, several taxi rides, premium price tickets (wonderful seats and acoustics in Powell Hall) plus the obligatory pre-concert dinner and hotel, this was not a cheap concert. But just about the best one I ever experienced.


Anonymous said...

As one of the chorus members who performed in the War Requiem this weekend, I'm pleased that you found our sound appropriately pee-inducing. :) Needless to say, it was as tremendously exciting to perform this work as it was to watch.

Anonymous said...

I too attended to the concert and walked away mesmerized. I didn't know the work very well, and I feel like I've been missing out on a masterpiece all these years. I'm glad you got to visit our city and experience a wonderful concert.

Don said...

Thank you Anon#1 for your fine performance. I did not leave with wet pants, although it was certainly possible. Eyes wet yes, pants no.

Anon # 2. I grew up in Central Il plus lived for several years in St Louis (Tower Grove Park Area)and my son lives in CWE so this was a going home in many ways. I moved to KC reluctantly for a job, or I would still be there.

Thanks for reading!