fri 21/06/2024

Britten War Requiem, London Symphony Orchestra, Noseda, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Britten War Requiem, London Symphony Orchestra, Noseda, Barbican Hall

Britten War Requiem, London Symphony Orchestra, Noseda, Barbican Hall

The pity of war is vivid indeed in a moving performance of Britten's pacifist oratorio

Ian Bostridge: embracing the ugliness and extremity of Britten's music

Nearly 50 years have passed since Britten’s War Requiem premiered at the consecration of the reconstructed Coventry Cathedral in May 1962. The intervening years have seen British military campaigns in the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and while the process and practice of war has changed beyond recognition, the horror that the pacifist Britten perceived so acutely remains the same.

With Remembrance Sunday approaching, it would be hard to imagine a more vivid act of commemoration and testimony than the performance the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus delivered at the Barbican last night.

Bringing together the vernacular texts of Wilfred Owen with the Latin Requiem Mass, full orchestra with a chamber ensemble, and balancing the chorus with a distant choir of boys voices, the War Requiem is a babel of textures and tones, a polyphonic clamour of contraries.

The LSO were by turns brutal and beautifulLast weekend the impact an unusual orchestral configuration can have on the listening experience was brought home in the topsy-turvy set-up of Boulez’s Pli selon pli; last night again, with the solo double bass out in front and a harp squatting uneasily among the central strings, we experienced the same alienating sensation, the familiar orchestral textures shaded with unexpected colours. Playing off the comforting security of the best-beloved British oratorio against a unique structure and lingering tritonal disquiet, Britten’s Requiem pays homage to tradition while never becoming assimilated into nostalgia.

Stepping in to replace the initially advertised Sir Colin Davis, Gianandrea Noseda (pictured right) left his audience little room to imagine the performance that might have been. Without the intrusion of an interval, he sustained a dramatic trajectory that grew inexorably out of the leaps of the opening string theme into the climactic ensemble cries of “libera me”. Calibrating his drama with absolute control, the impact of its sparing moments of frenzy – the insistent machine-gun assault of the Dies irae from chorus and brass, the groans and moans of tormented souls in the Libera Me, and above all the Bosch-like clamour of the “confutatis maledictis” – were devastating.

The LSO, recalling their superb performance of Elgar’s The Kingdom at the Barbican earlier this year, were by turns brutal and beautiful, their brass cynical and sardonic in the Dies irae and triumphal in the Sanctus, the chamber ensemble supporting the solo passages in an intimate and unsettling dialogue.


Matching them for precision were the London Symphony Chorus, who created two entirely distinct sound-worlds from the desperate, barely spoken urgency of the pianissimo "Requiem aeternam" and the affirmative arrival of the closing pianissimo of the Kyrie. Britten’s habitual boys' voices came courtesy of the always excellent Eltham College Choir, stealing into the texture from the back of the gallery. Impeccably enunciated and projected throughout, it was their hushed chorus interpolation into the Abraham and Isaac episode that lingers.

Ian Bostridge, with some 50 War Requiems under his belt, has an authority in this repertoire that seems determined never to become security. Ever more willing to take himself and his audience to a place of ugliness and extremity, his daring catches the breath in the same way as Owen’s cruel images. Spare and bleak, Bostridge was at his best in the Agnus Dei, among the controlled horrors of “At a Calvary near the Ancre”. Rather more stoic in approach, Simon Keenlyside (pictured left) offered the earth to Bostridge’s flame, anchoring us in the grim plod of war. Soprano Sabina Cvilak – distant among the choir – offered airy commentary, too disengaged in the Lacrimosa which had a little too much of the Kurt Weill about it, though her "Rex tremendae" was blistering in its attack.

The War Requiem launches a season of English language oratorios at the Barbican, and the next few months will see A Child of Our Time, Belshazzar’s Feast and The Dream of Gerontius performed by a variety of British orchestras. The special place the War Requiem occupies among these 20th-century classics was reflected in last night’s sold-out hall, and the concert will unusually receive a repeat performance on Tuesday. On the strength of this supreme rendition it will prove a worthy rival even to the enticements of Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra across town.

  • Britten's War Requiem repeated on 11 October at the Barbican

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