There is much to commend all participants. The work itself is challenging and asks nothing more than a fully committed heart. This quality was present in abundance.
War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. Presented by New England Philharmonic, Richard Pittman conductor; Providence Singers and Chorus pro Musica, Betsy Burleigh, Artistic Director; and Boston Children’s Chorus, Anthony Trecek-King, Artistic Director. In Providence, RI, March 4, 3:30 p.m.
By Anthony J. Palmer
The War Requiem by Benjamin Britten is without a doubt one of the outstanding compositions of the twentieth century. To climb its peaks is to meander with the gods. And from its summits, a glimpse of other worlds becomes perceptible.
With an alert and refined orchestra following Richard Pittman’s steady hand and economical direction, the vocal forces employed against an implacable foe—war itself—were finally victorious over strong but ultimately compliant resistance. Britten, a dedicated pacifist, garnered all possible resources to direct his distaste for the destruction that results from armed conflict. All contributors, immersed in Britten’s aesthetics, mounted the necessary courage to show the vacuity of conflict as resolution and the emptiness it hides. Indeed, this was a moving experience, one matched only by another of equally horrid dimensions.
My memories of touring the Peace Museum in Nagasaki many decades ago had not, as I thought, vanished. They were triggered unexpectedly by the opening timpani and restless lower strings of the Britten Requiem. Suddenly, a vivid recollection of the horrors visited upon an unsuspecting people came to mind. Whether it was the tenor’s entry to the battle, “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?” or the repetitious, Buddhist-like ritual of steady poundings on the large shrine bells (here played by the chimes throughout the performance) that tolled for all those sacrificed, I cannot say. But moved I was by the artistic exploration of humankind’s most deadly characteristic on this still-cold but bright Sunday afternoon.
The soloists were superbly suited to their roles: Frank Kelley, as the tenor, sang with appropriate anger and resigned grief. Sumner Thompson, as the baritone, sang with deep-felt passion for the life he was threatening to end in the story of Abram and his son, Isaac. Sarah Pelletier, the soprano, reminded us of the last judgment to come, when “all that is hidden shall appear; nothing will remain unavenged.” The Children’s Chorus intoned their yet-chaste view of the world in “all flesh shall come before Thee.”
Each of these outpourings from the fertile fabric of Britten’s imagination was remarkably effective and matched by the combined voices in later passages. The chorus’s Kyrie eleison, unwavering in its syllabic repetition, formed a stoic backdrop to the drama that was to come in the Dies irae, the brass initially setting the scene for retribution in a fireworks display of short, motivic spellings. Is there no respite from the terror of Wilfred Owen’s poetry? “The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells,” is certainly a music made more from demons than from beautiful human voices.
One can describe War Requiem as a multicolored ball of steel wire where each color is recognizable and seen as a integral part of the larger substance, sometimes appearing as a strong cable and at other times softly shielded in velvet. As the work was conceived, the forces deployed in this performance made their way to the fore as needed and yielded when necessary, each demanding identification when appropriate, as at a curtain call: orchestral brass and percussion always pointedly articulated, strings and woodwinds (both in large ensemble and chamber) playing with expert technique and musicality.
But Requiems are oriented toward text that seeks redemption and salvation. There was beautiful singing throughout; for example, the men in the Dies Irae (“that day, that day of wrath shall consume the world in ashes”) dramatize the sense of living righteously in our brief and transient time before the final verdict. The soprano announces in firm and commanding voice, “Liber scriptus proferetur “(“the book shall be presented”). This is the crux of the Requiem Mass, “when the judge shall come to weigh everything strictly.” After that, there is nothing more than repentance and hope, always hope for redemption. The soprano’s harsh verdict must be announced, and Ms. Pelletier was consistently effective throughout the drama: Judicandus homo reus (guilty man, to be judged) but not without a shred of hope given the chorus’s beautifully comforting Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem. Amen (Gentle Lord Jesus, grant them rest. Amen.). Given a lifetime of service, the inevitability of death is not without its rewards.
Britten knew when to relent, when to accept the inevitable. The children’s chorus could not have been more opportune for our collective psyche. Their entrance on the Domine Jesu Christe, Rex gloriae, libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum de poenius inferni, et de profundo lacu (Lord Jesus Christ, King of Glory, deliver the souls of the faithful departed from the pains of hell and the bottomless pit) was as uplifting as any other point in the work. Britten knew boys’ voices and understood their immediate association with purity, without discoloration, without the stain of life’s vicissitudes. The Boston Children’s Chorus fulfilled the promise with ease and perfect musicianship.
The musical climax of the work came with the Libera me, Domine, de mortis aeterna (Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death) and the Tremens factus sum ego (I am seized with fear). Beginning softly with strings and snare drum, the chorus parts entered softly and purposefully, first the alto, followed by the tenors, then the sopranos, each building on the other in a vocal line that seemed unrooted to a tonic, with the ever-present chime reminding us that we experience time for only for a little while. Sung and played superbly, the chorus and orchestra pulled out all the stops, in a manner of speaking, and offered a controlled chaos, finally ending with a whimpered Domine, thereby setting the mood for the tenor’s exclamation that followed: [searching among the sleepers on the ground] “by his smile, I knew that sullen hall; By his dead smile, I knew we stood in Hell.”
There is much to commend all participants. The work itself is challenging and asks nothing more than a fully committed heart. This quality was present in abundance. The preparation needed to pull together so many seemingly disparate parts and doing it superbly also speaks well of all the conductors, their commensurate devotion to great music performed with a deep and abiding love for the medium. All the singers and instrumentalists also displayed an equal love for making great music come alive, this score particularly, in a world in need of love and devotion, to something beyond their individual existence. We need more hope, more love, more devotion, and more great music to be performed to remind us of the joy of being alive. Yes, it sounds maudlin, but being deeply moved in today’s world is no small thing, not anymore.