Death becomes them

Britten's War Requiem hits home in challenging acoustics

Guy Dammann
Sunday July 6, 2008
The Observer
War Requiem
Liverpool Cathedral

 A week that began with Britten's unconsoling War Requiem and ended with Sibelius's most desolate symphony was never going to be cheery. Where most requiems, if they do not necessarily rejoice in the majesty of death, at least offer a contemplation on its mystery, Britten's work is magisterial solely in scale and in its unremitting focus on the inhumanity of modern warfare. As for Sibelius, suffice it to say that the concept of melancholy in music was left sorely in need of repair after the Fourth Symphony was completed in 1911.

Oddly, though, there was something cheering to be found here. For if the War Requiem is neither easy to perform nor to hear, it is staggeringly difficult to stage, and to pack a cathedral the size of Gilbert Scott's exorbitant Liverpool masterpiece with an eager, appreciative audience, and choral and orchestral forces from the city and its twin, Cologne, was a triumph.
In keeping with Britten's original conception that a German, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, should sing baritone solo, an Englishman, Peter Pears, tenor, and a Soviet, Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano, the Liverpool Philharmonic booked Ian Bostridge, Hanno Müller-Brachmann (who studied with Fischer-Dieskau), and the Latvian-born Marina Rebeka.
Where the two men are both steeped in the lied tradition, and thus suited to the intense, painfully inflected settings of Wilfred Owen's verse which Britten - a pacifist who watched, like Auden, the war from across the Atlantic - interspersed among the Latin mass, Rebeka seemed an odd choice given her bel canto background.
But then her role is somewhat different to that of the male soloists, who communicate directly with the audience, reminding them in musical and textual vernacular that the 'passing-bells for those who die as cattle' are not done ringing.
The soprano, by contrast, sings the Latin text, standing with the main choir at some distance from the male soloists and their chamber orchestra. In this respect, under the colossal central tower of Scott's spiritual power station, Rebeka triumphed, with the ranked chorus behind her, launching up into the vaults Britten's exploded melisma and illuminating the brickwork with the sound of transfigured mourning.
Conducting his choir and the RLPO, Ian Tracey clearly had an excellent night, working with an acoustic which, though generous, can also be treacherous.

Additional information