BSO, Dutoit observe Britten centenary with powerful “War Requiem”

November 8, 2013 at 12:35 pm

By David Wright

Charles Dutoit leads the BSO and soloists in Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

Although the ardent pacifist Benjamin Britten would surely be appalled at our present age of perpetual war, one hopes he would also be gratified to see his fiercely anti-war masterpiece, the War Requiem, sung and played around the world every year, not just in this centenary year of his birth.

The composer would have turned 100 this November 22, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit marked the occasion Thursday night with a gripping performance of the War Requiem, including all the necessary forces: three vocal soloists, mixed adult choir, boy’s choir, chamber orchestra, and large orchestra with a massive percussion battery.

Although words like “forces” and “battery” are actual musical terms, they also serve to remind us of the ways a symphony orchestra performance resembles a military operation—and perhaps also of how vividly artists in pursuit of peace can depict war.

In Britten’s bold juxtaposition of the ancient Latin Mass for the Dead with the deeply ironic war poetry of Wilfred Owen, celestial harmonies mingle with the thump of bombs, the rattle of machine guns, the whine and whistle of shells, and trumpet calls by turns ominous, urgent, and terrifying.

In Thursday’s performance, the martial sounds had the edge, thanks to the skill and imagination of the BSO’s wind players and percussionists, who made Britten’s musical metaphors leap off the page.  It felt as though one were sitting next to the poet as he scribbled in the trench.

Rather than try to match the orchestra effect for effect, Britten gave the choirs a more distanced role, and conductor Dutoit went him one better, sometimes calling for non legato, uninflected singing that counteracted overt emotion.  The great cry of terror at the violent climax of “Libera me,” however, was just as visceral as it must be.

Though perhaps more at home in the red-blooded choruses of Verdi’s Requiem (with which Britten’s score has many points of contact), the Tanglewood Festival Chorus showed signs of thorough preparation under its director John Oliver, particularly in the long passages of unaccompanied, ultra-soft singing, which the choir brought off with only a slight flutter in the tone to indicate what a difficult feat it was.

For distance from adult human emotions, there is nothing like a children’s choir, and Britten assigned parts of the Latin text to singing boys as a kind of Blakean song of innocence.  Literally distant in the hall’s second balcony, the aptly named American Boychoir, directed by Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, sounded more domestic than imported, but that was all right; their all-American brand of innocence proved just as meaningful in its way as the unearthly tones of English boy choristers.

Britten gave distinct roles to the three vocal soloists, originally a soprano from the Soviet Union, a tenor from England, and a baritone from West Germany—countries whose citizens had suffered grievously in World War II, the memory of which remained fresh in 1962, when the War Requiem was composed and premiered.  The soprano was to add Verdian luster to the liturgical passages, while tenor and baritone took turns interpreting Owen’s poems, accompanied lieder-style by the chamber orchestra.

Thursday’s cast of soloists followed the nationalities of the original, except that the U.S.S.R. is now Russia, West Germany is now just Germany, and—well, there’ll always be an England.

Unfortunately for her, Britten’s score introduced soprano Tatiana Pavlovksaya in her least appealing aspect, leaping upward in “Liber scriptus” to a grating fortissimo high note.  In softer dynamics, however, she sang with a pure, well-centered tone and minimal vibrato, illuminating her Latin text.

Tenor John Mark Ainsley’s performance was very much in the natural, subtly expressive style of Peter Pears, for whom the part was written.  (He even tipped his head back a little, as Pears used to do, as if to let the tone flow out more easily.)  Ainsley’s lucid diction and unaffected manner often created the illusion that he was reciting Owen’s lines rather than singing them.

Although Matthias Goerne’s lean, clear baritone was well-matched to Ainsley’s tenor—they made convincing war buddies in the boisterous “Out there, we walked quite friendly up to Death”—Goerne seemed to sing with more effort, and his English diction was often hard to understand, a curious language barrier to encounter in such an international artist.

Conductor Dutoit managed the whole firmly and with an unerring sense of pace, sustaining audience attention throughout the performance’s uninterrupted hour and a half.  The artists were rewarded at the end with prolonged, standing, but respectful applause in keeping with the work’s somber character.

Only one thing was conspicuously missing from this powerful performance: the vast, resonant space of Coventry Cathedral, for whose re-opening after war damage this music was written.  In the clean, objective acoustics of Symphony Hall, many of Britten’s sonic effects sounded well executed—and far away.

Listening to a daring piece that seemed to encourage heretical thoughts, perhaps there was room for one more: that someday, as acoustical science advanced, this old hall might be equipped, for a few days at least, with electronics that could produce the sound Britten imagined for his greatest work.  It would be worth a try.

The performance will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.  bso.org; 617-266-1200.

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2 Responses to “BSO, Dutoit observe Britten centenary with powerful “War Requiem””

  1. Posted Nov 13, 2013 at 3:14 pm by Bob Moore

    A good and generally fair review but wrong on two counts. (1) Pavlovskaya has just the right bite for ‘Liber scriptus” and (2) the acoustics of Symphony Hall are superior to those of Coventry Cathedral. And how would electronic enhancement add anything to the performance?

  2. Posted Nov 14, 2013 at 10:14 pm by Ron Barnell

    The Saturday night performance of the War Requiem was a revelation in that one sensed that the acoustics of Symphony Hall tendered a sonic halo to the performance with a positive blend of balance between ambience and clarity. The choral sections were projected with Dutoit’s masterful control of the extreme dynamic gradations found in the score.

    The sound of the American Boyschoir in the upper balcony with Harmonium accompaniment- was magical in that the voices seemed to be floating up in the far ether above ones head. This was a true ” surround-sound ” live audio experience.

    Finally, although the Hall was very full, I must say that this one of the rare times that I have ever experienced an audience that was so very quiet in their attentiveness to the music. Particularly, in the very soft choral passages-this audience seemed fairly mesmerized- never more so than in the final closing pages.

    The Boston Symphony has an signatory legacy with Britten’s War Requiem and coming in celebration of Britten’s 100th birthday anniversary and just before Veterans Day-this milestone performance lingers in one’s heart & soul long after the final choral “Amen” had faded into the background silence of Symphony Hall.