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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Three Choirs Festival (1)) : Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) War Requiem Op. 66, Judith Howarth (soprano); James Gilchrist (tenor); Stephen Roberts (baritone); Three Choirs Festival Chorus; Gloucester Cathedral Choristers; Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Andrew Nethsingha. Gloucester Cathedral 4.8.2007 (JQ)


With all the recent severe disruption in parts of Gloucestershire caused by flooding there must have been some doubts in the last fortnight as to whether the Three Choirs Festival might be under some threat. However, the waters receded in time and the 280th Festival duly got under way on Saturday. This performance of War Requiem was the first of the major concerts in the magnificent surroundings of Gloucester Cathedral. The work is one which often makes a visceral impact on the senses and, especially, on the emotions and I’m sure I was not alone in feeling an additional sense of poignancy at hearing this music – and Wilfred Owen’s timeless poems about the sacrifice and futility of war – at a time when members of our armed forces are on perilous duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The work has a long association with the Festival. At the 1963 Festival, in
Worcester, Douglas Guest conducted what was only the third-ever performance of the piece and it was heard again at the next two Festivals. Indeed, just before going into the Cathedral for this 2007 concert, I found myself in conversation with two stalwart members of the Festival Chorus, now retired, who had taken part in those, and several succeeding, performances and upon whom the experience of singing War Requiem had left a huge impression.

War Requiem has been criticised in certain quarters over the years and, in particular, some people feel that the juxtaposition of Wilfred Owen’s poetry and the Latin Mass for the Dead is an uncomfortable one. I don’t share this view. It seems to me that Britten’s conception, linking the traditional, ritualistic Mass text with Owen’s searing imagery was a stroke of genius, especially at certain points such as the potent moment in the Dies Irae, where the vehement setting of ‘Confutatis maledictis’ runs straight into Owen’s Sonnet On Seeing a Piece of Our Artillery Brought Into Action (“Be slowly, lifted up, thou long black arm”) with it’s pounding timpani. It seems to me that Britten’s selection of poems was pretty unerring and that his instinct for which poem to insert and at what juncture in the Mass text was uncanny. The words of the Mass have inspired countless composers but interleaving them with Owen’s poetry in this way produced an impact that is even greater than the sum of the work’s parts.

The three solo parts are hugely demanding. The soprano role was written for the great Russian diva, Galina Vishnevskaya, a uniquely histrionic artist. The soprano sings parts of the Mass text with the chorus and on some occasions I’ve seen the soloist positioned with the choir. On this occasion Judith Howarth sang from the more traditional soloist’s spot at the front of the platform and I’m sure this was a wise decision. Miss Howarth is a singer with the right amount of vocal heft for a role that very often requires powerful projection. I’m afraid, however, that I was disappointed with her performance. She certainly possessed the requisite power, especially at the top of her register. Unfortunately, however, she consistently attacked high notes from below, producing an ugly effect. In addition I wasn’t always convinced that her pitching was completely accurate.

The male soloists sing the Owen poems, accompanied by a small chamber ensemble. Stephen Roberts, singing the baritone role conceived for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, generally sang well. It seemed to me that his voice didn’t have quite enough amplitude to enable him to project ‘Be slowly lifted up’ in this large acoustic without forcing the tone and there were some occasions when notes weren’t hit quite in the centre. However, he sang ’After the Blast of Lightning’ with sensitivity - though the accompaniment was a little too loud towards the end – and he reserved his most intense singing, rightly, for ‘Strange Meeting.'

The outstanding solo performance was given by James Gilchrist. As in so many Britten works a key challenge for the tenor soloist is to banish the listener’s memories of Peter Pears. So compelling was Gilchrist’s performance that this was never an issue. He sang with a wonderfully plangent tone yet there was ample steel in the voice also. He pitched every note faultlessly and, above all, his identification with the text was complete. He began ‘Move him, move him into the sun’ with telling eloquence, using his head voice to marvellous effect. Every word was crystal clear – as was the case in all his solos – and it was clear from the way in which he put the words across that he cared. When, in this poem, he sang the words “Was it for this the clay grew tall?” it was heart-rending to hear. His solo in the Agnus Dei was equally affecting, leading up to a wonderfully shaded and exquisitely placed final phrase. Like Stephen Roberts, he was at his finest in ‘Strange Meeting.’ His singing of the ghostly opening lines of that poem was absolutely riveting; indeed, I can’t recall hearing it done better. Gilchrist’s whole performance was quite superb and makes me look forward keenly to hearing him sing Gerontius in a few days time.

The Festival Chorus sang their demanding parts with great assurance and fine tone. They had evidently been well prepared. Perhaps Andrew Nethsingha could have got them to sing the opening phrases more quietly and with greater mystery – and the ‘Kyrie’ at the end of the first movement was nowhere near the ppp marked in the score. However, they more than compensated elsewhere in the work with singing that was characterised by great commitment and accuracy. At the ‘Tuba Mirum’ the chorus sang with tremendous bite and clarity, as they also did later on at ‘Confutatis.’ I also admired the sensitive way in which the ladies delivered the ‘Recordare.’ There was splendid attack in the ‘Quam olim Abrahae promisisti’ fugue in the Offertorium – a weaker part of the score – and, encouraged by Andrew Nethsingha, they built up the relentless march of the ‘Libera me’ with impressive power. This was a most impressive debut by the 2007 Festival Chorus, which promises well for the remainder of the week.

A word of praise, too, for the small group of choristers who sang the crucial Boys Chorus parts from the organ loft. Under the direction of
Gloucester’s Assistant Organist, Robert Houssart, they sang with pinpoint accuracy, great assurance ad clarity.

To say that War Requiem is a complex score would be an understatement. As is well known, many early performances used two conductors, one directing the choir and main orchestra while a second, often Britten himself, directed the chamber orchestra and male soloists. There was no such division of labour on this occasion. Andrew Nethsingha was in sole charge and he exerted an impressive control, clearly having the full measure of the piece. His was a very convincing interpretation of the score – the huge canvass of the ‘Dies Irae’ came across, as it should, as one continuous span, the Owen poems fitting easily and naturally into the Latin Sequence. Just once or twice I felt that he pressed the tempos a little too much, perhaps to ensure that precision and detail was not lost in the resonant acoustic. For my taste, the tenor and baritone duet, ‘Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death’, was just too quick. Admittedly it’s marked “Fast and gay” in the score but here the pace seemed just a little too jaunty and it seemed to me that the singers were a bit pressed to articulate the rhythms and the words with sufficient clarity. Another place where I questioned the tempo was the duet in the Offertorium, the parable of Abraham and Isaac. Here the marking is “rather deliberate” but the music didn’t come across in this way and it wasn’t until the singers combine to tell of the appearance of the angel that I felt the tempo was really right. As a result a bit of the poetry was missing in this important section.

Elsewhere, however, Nethsingha’s control was impressive. The menacing and slowly accelerating march at the start of the Libera Me was built up impressively and with great tension, leading to a suitably cataclysmic climax. He also handled the final pages (“Let us sleep now”), where at last Britten brings all the forces together, extremely well. Just occasionally the balance between orchestra and chorus got askew – principally at the ‘Hosannas’ in the Sanctus and Benedictus where the brass, and the horns in particular, were given their head a bit too much for comfort. On the other hand the music of the Dies Irae itself, with the brazen brass fanfares, was put over with shattering force, especially when this material recurs after “Be slowly lifted up”.

Overall this performance of War Requiem was an extremely impressive achievement, not least in the atmosphere it generated – the lengthy silence after the music died away spoke for itself. The 2007 Three Choirs Festival has been launched auspiciously.


John Quinn   

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