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Britten, War Requiem: Marina Rebeka (soprano), Ian Bostridge (tenor), Audun Iversen (baritone), RSNO Chorus and Junior Chorus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stephane Denève (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 30. 4.2010 (SRT)

Britten’s mighty War Requiem speaks to us as powerfully today as it did in 1962 when it accompanied the reconsecration of the new Coventry Cathedral. Britten may have been commenting on the massacre of two world wars but, while the threats we face are very different, our modern day has its fair share of darkness to come to terms with. From the very opening with the ominous tolling of the bell the RSNO’s performance was one full of purpose. The great climaxes of, say, the Tuba mirum or Libera me were astonishingly powerful but there was plenty of room to expand in the gentler sections too. This great work has its fair share of unsettling doom, not least in the funeral procession of the opening Requiem aeternam, but without careful shading it can turn into a sledgehammer. There was no such danger in the hands of Stephane Denève, who learnt the work under Rostropovich. He paced the sombre moments with a purposeful tread, never lugubrious, but kept the great climaxes going so that the audience never felt that it was drowning in sound: the rapid patter of the Sanctus was cacophonous but the control of the beat meant that we always knew where we were going. The way the music dies away (almost literally!) at the end of the Offertorio was spellbinding, and the hypnotic beauty of the Agnus Dei will remain with me for a long time. The chamber orchestra, squeezed together on the conductor’s right, gave repeated displays of virtuosity, especially the percussionist who seemed to need many pairs of hands at once!


The choral singing was very fine. Recently the RSNO chorus have impressed me hugely, coming on fabulously since last year’s Sea Symphony. Articulation was much sharper and they were utterly together throughout. The boys’ chorus (which seemed to consist mainly of girls!) sang from the Usher Hall foyer behind the audience, a spine-tingling effect increased by the pallid iciness of their singing. Britten would have been proud! The soloists were hugely impressive too. I am convinced that there is no finer Britten singer in the world today than Ian Bostridge. The colour of his voice and his razor-sharp articulation of the words means that he can bring the text alive in a way that no other tenor can and he inflects every word so that it pulses with meaning, especially in the final excerpt from Strange Meeting. If there is a natural heir to Peter Pears then surely it is him. His Norwegian companion, Iversen, commanded the hall with his rich, authoritative baritone, only occasionally betraying non-native diction. However Marina Rebeka’s soprano was the biggest surprise of the evening. This role, standing as she does behind the huge orchestra, needs almost clarion-like projection which she managed without ever sounding shrill. The stridency of her voice merely heightened the agony of the words without ever losing musicality and she evoked just the right measure of beauty amidst the slaughter. A very special evening.


Simon Thompson

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