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S & H Concert Review

Britten, ‘War Requiem,’ London Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Davis, City of London Festival, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Thursday July 11th. (ME)


The City of London Festival has been a flourishing event for forty years now, so it was appropriate that its last major musical event of this season, in the splendid surroundings of St. Paul’s, should be Britten’s ‘Requiem,’ first performed forty years ago in another, very different cathedral. The concert was sponsored by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, thus ensuring the presence of that well – known London species, the Corporate Wife in all her languid, designer –dressed and perfectly coiffed boredom, but such was the nature of the venue and the work itself that it was possible to ignore the yawning and eyes –raised –to heaven glances and concentrate on the music itself.

And what music it is, performed here with ravishing lustre by the LSO, an orchestra which has not put a finger wrong this season; Davis conducted a completely convincing account of the score, with highly dramatic playing from the very first moments of that portentous tritone to the subdued grandeur of the final passage. The LSO Chorus equalled this with intense, sharply focussed singing, particularly in the most powerful ‘Dies Irae’ that I’ve heard, and they were wonderfully echoed by the Choristers of the Cathedral; the programme reminded us that there has been a choir of ‘Boy Choristers and Gentlemen’ at St. Paul’s for over nine centuries, and that long tradition was evident in the superb freshness of their phrasing and the clarity of their diction – ‘In paradisum’ was especially fine.

Britten originally wanted a certain mixture of nationalities amongst the soloists, and nowadays most performances of the work tend to aim for that, at least with the male parts, with pairings such as Bostridge/Quasthoff/ and Ainsley/Mohr, but here both tenor and baritone were as British as could be, and the soprano was Erin Wall, a rising star from the Chicago Lyric Opera. Anthony Rolfe Johnson might be described as the very incarnation of what we mean when we use the phrase ‘English Tenor’ (although the somewhat quixotic -to put it gently - programme tries to convince us otherwise by referring to him as ‘One of the USA’s most distinguished singers…’ – someone needs to do their homework) and this (Oxfordshire – born) great singer lives in my memory for his still – unequalled Aschenbach and Male Chorus, and his uniquely touching interpretations of Bach and Schubert. Sadly, however, his voice is no longer what it was, and he simply could not command sufficient amplitude of tone to make the words tell, which is doubly unfortunate since his diction and phrasing have always been exemplary. It was only in such lines as ‘But where the lamb for this burnt offering?’ that one could catch echoes of his former greatness, and to put it bluntly I think it is time for him to retire from live performance and concentrate on teaching, for which he obviously has almost as great a gift.

Alan Opieis mainly known as a fine opera singer; I still treasure memories of his hysterically funny ENO Barber, and the character of his singing reveals his background on the stage. The baritone has, perhaps, the easier part here, both in terms of the music and making himself heard in such a setting, and Opie gave a solid, thoughtful performance, carefully shaping the lines and bringing the drama of Owen’s poems to life even though he lacked that last ounce of passion and moving quality in his singing with which we have come to be familiar from such interpreters as Quasthoff and Maltman. Nevertheless, he suggested the soldier’s bravado in ‘Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to death’ and blended beautifully with Rolfe Johnson in ‘Let us sleep now.’

Erin Wallis a singer new to me, and she is extremely promising, with a powerful, rich tone and sympathetic phrasing, although at times a slightly hard edge seemed to creep in. She negotiated the challenging lines of ‘Liber scriptor’ most impressively, and her ‘Lacrimosa’ was beautifully shaped. All of the singers, in fact, managed to achieve Britten’s desired effect of combining drama with tenderness, and the closing minutes of the work, from the baritone’s ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’ were especially moving, with their unique blending of texts and voices; when the end was followed by a long silence I was unsure as to whether this meant that most of the audience didn’t know it was all over, or that the performers were being accorded the accolade which was surely their due.

Melanie Eskenazi

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