Britten War Requiem Liverpool Cathedral

YOU would need to go back over a span of more than three decades to Charles Groves’ 1975 performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony or to Richard Hickox’s 1980s direction of Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony to find a large-scale cathedral choral concert as compelling.
But neither of these landmark readings were as significant as Saturday’s chastening concert, involving choirs from Liverpool’s senior twin city Cologne, choristers from both of Liverpool’s cathedrals and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir.
While Benjamin Britten’s heroic score – always more operatic than liturgical – represents the pinnacle of his pacifism, the heart of the work belongs to the poetry of the Birkenhead-born poet Wilfred Owen: the voice crying from the trenches.
The protagonists against the slaughter of the innocents were the greatest contemporary Britten interpreter, the tenor Ian Bostridge (with a lyrical and more pleasing tone than Peter Pears), and the German baritone Hanno Muller-Brachmann.
Both, accompanied by a detached chamber orchestra, had their pivotal moments. “What passing bells for those who die as cattle” (tenor) and “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.” (baritone).
Ian Tracey’s firm and logical marshalling of the massed forces elsewhere was complemented by the soaring Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka (singing from the Latin mass for the dead), in a true confrontation between heavenly redemption and man-made hell on earth.
In this respect, Britten is the master of tumult and sudden incursion as well as of introspection.
It is through words and music such as this, rather than traipsing to the altar rail, that countless thousands of listeners have been able to unleash an awareness of spirituality which transcends religious dogma.
In such a splendid setting, with the summer light gradually fading to coincide with the final supplication – “May they rest in peace” – the sense of artistic completion is beyond anything that can be captured on disc. You had to be there.
The critics were arraigned in a specially privileged position adjacent to the chamber ensemble, and with the soloists amplified at close quarters it was easy to comprehend.
I suspect that those in the nave of a capacity-filled cathedral, and watching on a large television screen, the experience may not have been so satisfying.
Certainly, the musicians in the main orchestra had difficulty hearing the words.


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