Classical Concert Review: The Boston Symphony Orchestra — A Searing Rendition of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”

In sum, this was one of those rare concerts in which everything clicked, musically and dramatically.

Charles Dutoit leads the BSO in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem with Tatiana Pavlovskaya. Photo: Stu Rosner

Charles Dutoit leads the BSO in Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” with Tatiana Pavlovskaya. Photo: Stu Rosner.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

It’s been a good autumn for English composers at Symphony Hall. In the past month, pieces by Thomas Adés and Mark-Anthony Turnage have received local and American premieres, respectively, and, last weekend, Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations made a glowing return to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) repertoire. This past weekend, to commemorate its creator’s 100th birthday on November 22nd, the BSO, Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC), American Boychoir, Charles Dutoit, and vocal soloists turned to Benjamin Britten and his monumental War Requiem, an epic last heard on a BSO subscription series in 2000.

Few musical compositions sum up the 20th century more aptly than does Britten’s War Requiem, a work composed in the shadow of the Second World War and right as the Cold War reached fever pitch. Written for the 1962 consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, Britten, a lifelong pacifist, wrote a score that anticipates the death of War at least as much as it memorializes those ravaged by it.

The War Requiem is a piece that allowed Britten to exercise his two most impressive musical gifts: his abilities as a mature, large-scale dramatist and as a composer of songs. In the War Requiem’s special structure, both are intimately intertwined. For the latter, Britten famously interpolated verses by the World War 1-era poet Wilfred Owen into the traditional liturgy for the dead, providing a striking modern counterpoint to the familiar, ancient rite. These poems are divided between a tenor and baritone soloist accompanied by a chamber orchestra; the Latin texts are given to a solo soprano, mixed choir, children’s chorus, and large orchestra.

The juxtaposition of old words with new is but one of Britten’s bold dramatic strokes. Another is the spectacular sense of space that this piece delivers, with the children’s choir placed at a distance, and the chamber orchestra (with its soloists) also removed from the larger ensemble. The logistics of a performance at Symphony Hall limit just how well these objectives can be realized, and this weekend’s concerts embedded the chamber orchestra into the symphony orchestra, robbing that aspect of the music of some of its spatial character. But the excellent American Boychoir was placed out of sight in the second balcony and the effect was thrilling – at times, really, chilling: like the voices of angels drifting down over the carnage of a battlefield.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the War Requiem, though, is its ascetic musical craftsmanship: not a note is wasted. It’s one of precious few 20th-century scores that can be summed up in a single, two-note chord, this one outlining the diabolus in musica, the tritone. In the War Requiem, that one interval sums up all the musical and extramusical tension and drama, and Britten generally saved its appearance for key structural moments in the piece; the results are often profoundly moving.

In keeping with a tradition intended by Britten for the premiere of the War Requiem, this weekend’s soloists hailed from three of the Western countries to suffer the most in World War 2: Germany, Britain, and Russia. Baritone Matthias Goerne brought warm, often stentorian, tone to his solos, though his virtually unintelligible English diction proved one of Saturday night’s few frustrations. Highly impressive, though, were the contributions of tenor John Mark Ainsley, who channeled the memory of Peter Pears with lucid tone, crisp diction, and quintessentially cool, English restraint; and soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, whose steely entrances in the “Liber scriptus” and opening of the “Sanctus” were balanced with the dulcet fervency of her account of the “Lacrimosa.”

Saturday’s performance also brought about some of the strongest singing I’ve yet heard from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC). In his choral writing in the War Requiem, Britten spared that ensemble no difficulties, requiring everything of them from pure, chant-like gestures to queasy, chromatic counterpoint. It’s a testament to the TFC’s leadership and preparation of this piece that none of the War Requiem’s inherent choral difficulties sounded hard on Saturday night. From the hushed echoes of the “Requiem aeternam” to the thunder of the “Dies irae” and the unsettled brume of the “Libera me,” the TFC shaped every phrase with meaning, accuracy, and care.

Charles Dutoit leads the BSO in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem with Tatiana Pavlovskaya John Mark Ainsley and Mattias Goerne. Photo: Stu Rosner)

Charles Dutoit leads the BSO in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem with Tatiana Pavlovskaya John Mark Ainsley and Mattias Goerne. Photo: Stu Rosner.

Presiding over it all, Dutoit drew a searing reading of this huge piece. Tempos never dragged – quite the opposite: Dutoit’s uncanny sense of pacing ensured that the music’s expressive goals packed quite a punch. Everything coming from the podium was precise and the BSO responded with alert, vigorous playing that was well attuned to Britten’s singular sound world.

In sum, this was one of those rare concerts in which everything clicked, musically and dramatically, neatly echoing Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s observation about the ability of Britten’s music to “engage the emotions and occupy the mind at the same time.” The crowd at Symphony Hall seemed to reflect this and ought to be commended for their admirable quietude and focus through the intermission-less, ninety-minute performance.

That these concerts roughly coincided with the 95th anniversary of Owens’s death (November 4th) and the November 11th holiday only served to emphasize the timelessness of the War Requiem’s message. The ultimate tragedy of this piece came across with unequivocal power on Saturday: after the radiant apotheosis – Britten’s setting of “Strange Meeting,” Owens’ imagined meeting of two soldiers, killer and killed; and “In paradisum,” which, for the only time in the Requiem, joins all the voices and instrumental groups together – those ominous tritones suddenly chimed again and returned the music to the bitter reality of the present. It’s one of the most heartbreaking moments in music, one that shows no signs of losing its relevance. If, as Britten’s preface to the War Requiem (quoting Owen) states, “all a poet can do today is warn,” that warning is clearly one to be repeated again and again and again until we start heeding it. Until then, Saturday’s performance forcibly reminded that the War Requiem remains but a haunting prayer waiting to be fulfilled.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

1 Comment

  1. Ron Barnell on November 16, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    Having attended the Saturday night performance of the Britten War Requiem that Jonathan Blumhofer has reviewed here- I will confirm that his insights and reactions to this memorable concert almost exactly parallel what I came away with at its conclusion.

    I would as well give positive reinforcement to Jonathan’s comments regarding the choral singing – with both the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under John Oliver and the American Boychoir under Fernando Malvar-Ruiz – both choirs undertaking the “Missa Pro Defunctis” text with consummate sensitivity. The gradations between the extremely soft and loud choral sections were wonderful to hear with the boys choir with Harmonium accompaniment, sounding from the upper balcony in Symphony Hall with a quasi-“surround-sound” effect.

    The pillar through all of this was of course the conducting of Maestro Dutoit – whose control of the various disparate performance elements in the War Requiem approached sheer magic. As the final “Amen” faded into the super-quiet of the background – one could only sit there in a stunned silence – until the delayed applause brought one of the quietest audiences I have ever experienced in a concert hall back to reality.

    Both the 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth and the Veterans Day holiday have been mentioned in relation to the concert, to which I would only add that the performance of the War Requiem celebrated as well the 50th anniversary of the American premiere of the War Requiem – given by this same Boston Symphony at Tanglewood under Erich Leinsdorf in 1963.

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