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S & H Concert Review

Britten: War Requiem, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin, Barbican Hall, Saturday November 10th. (M.E.)


'All a poet can do today is warn,' wrote Wilfred Owen, whose poems form the basis of Britten's great anti-war piece, and his words seem especially apposite today. Part of the War Requiem's unique appeal is that it seems to speak to many who are not so greatly moved by the equivalent masterpieces of, say, Mozart or Verdi, whose influences on the present work are of course so profound. Perhaps it is the original use made of English words, or the sheer melodic grace of much of the music, or the operatic drama of most of the settings - or perhaps it is just the nature of the piece itself, with its emotional connections to last century's not-so-distant history.

This evening's performance gathered forces which were in tune with the composer's wishes, in that a German baritone, Russian soprano and English tenor comprised the soloists, and to further the international approach, we heard an American conductor in charge of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The phrase 'in charge' applied here far more than it often does. I have spent so many evenings in the concert hall wondering either what the conductor was for, or speculating as to exactly why the soloists appear to virtually ignore him, but Leonard Slatkin gave every indication of being totally in command of his considerable forces, without being at all dictatorial.

This was my first opportunity to sample the hall's new acoustics, and what a difference they made. Visually, the new reflectors resemble nothing so much as swathes of that sort of Laura Ashley three-coloured taffeta material which covers corn-fed girls on their first dance, but aurally they were far more dynamic, in that the old dryness in the sound, and the previous cold echo, appear to have been eliminated. The sound in general is still not as warm as that of, say, the superb Cité de la Musique in Paris, but it is a vast improvement, and certainly shows up the RFH acoustic. Why, I may even be tempted to endure the ghastly journey into the boondocks, with the glimpses of St. Paul's the only moment of pleasure on the way, the execrable food and the treat-you-like-dirt parking arrangements, in order to experience more concerts here.

It was the Choir which benefited most from the new sound, especially at the end of lines, where the sound closed incisively instead of getting lost somewhere in the middle of the auditorium, although the children's choir was not well placed. I found their music, though accurately sung, too much inclining towards wraith-like faintness; some ethereal sense is required, but this was going too far. Slatkin's management of orchestra and choir was superb; climaxes were minutely judged, and he obtained playing of the highest calibre from the orchestra, particularly the woodwind and brass.

It was interesting to compare the performance of the soloists with that of those in the LPO/Gardiner performance in May. The baritone Thomas Mohr was well cast here, in that his voice is sonorous when required yet lyrically apt for the more tender passages; his very slight German accent is also right in this context, but he did not move me as much as Maltman, since his voice is not as inherently emotional or as dramatically magisterial as that of the latter. His finest moment was during the duet 'Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death' where his open tone and precise diction blended well with the tenor's lines, and he also made much of the drama of 'None, said the other..' and shaped the very challenging 'Even the sweetest wells that ever were' with great skill.

I was disappointed in Elena Prokhina; I had heard Melanie Diener previously, and had put her rather strident tone down to lack of rehearsal (she was replacing Lott) but here, Prokhina's singing seemed shrill and lacking involvement; perhaps I was expecting too much after her lovely Tatiana, but the necessary smoothness seemed lacking here - her phrasing was rather hectic, even for these lines.

The strongest contrast between soloists past and present was that between Ainsley and Ian Bostridge; both tenors might be said to be of the same type, that is, English tenors in their late thirties, both of the Oxbridge tradition, both with lovely, if light, voices, but as interpreters of this work, they could hardly be more different. Bostridge sang with sweet expressiveness, highlighting the elements of pathos and tenderness; he moved me to tears at many points, and did not neglect the drama of the lines whilst doing so. Ainsley, on the other hand, goes for the more angular, bitter style, spitting out lines such as 'Was it for this the clay grew tall?' and his slightly astringent, rather ascetic tone was ideal for the narrative passages, although the higher notes found him a little uncharacteristically strained. His best singing was heard in the moving directness of 'But where the lamb for this burnt offering?' and the exquisite shaping of 'By whom the gentle Christ's denied.' His diction is wonderful; someone once wrote of John McCormack that you could almost see his consonants, and that remark might equally well be applied to Ainsley, but if your Kleenex box needs an outing then Bostridge is your man.

The final section was the highlight of the evening, with the children's choir finally making its mark in 'In paradisum,' and the male soloists giving a deeply moving account of 'It seemed that out of battle,' with Mohr's 'I am the enemy you killed, my friend' being received with the most rapt attention. A respectful silence and a warm ovation greeted a performance which had achieved that elusive combination of drama and tenderness, and which gained all the more for being heard in the context of the newly spacious and welcoming acoustic of the Barbican hall.

Melanie Eskenazi

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