Britten’s War Requiem was written between 1961-1962, ostensibly in response to WW I, in the aftermath of WW II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and all the many others.
On June 25, 2018, at the Philharmonie, the Staatskapelle Berlin, conducted by Sir Anthony Pappano and accompanied by stellar opera singers and choruses, sang out against all war, then and now. While it stirred us to the tips of our toes, no one who left the concert hall for one second believed it would ever stop. As the British poet and soldier Wilfred Owen wrote before he was killed in 1918, “All the poet can do today is warn.”
The concert, at the very least, raised a forceful red alert.
Sir Anthony Pappano is Music Director of the Royal Opera House, London. He is used to conducting at multiple levels – ideas, expressions, performers, instruments and voices, solo and choral; his skills and passion served him well in the Requiem, an anthem of such multilayering. Britten’s work blended the Latin text from “Missa pro defuntis” and the poetry of Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), with the exquisite and moving voices of tenor Ian Bostridge, baritone Matthias Goerne, and soprano Anna Nechaeva, plus an extraordinary cosmos of orchestral instrumentation and choral sumptuousness of the Chorus of the Staatsoper, Berlin, and the Boys Kinderchoir. It required masterful oversight, accurate timing, dialed-in dynamics, a careful cross-blend of words and notes, power and penetration. Pappano managed it all. Toward the end, as if pulling up out of a bloody battlefield, he literally jumped forward on the podium and on both feet! Even so there was no escape.
Plowing Through the Requiem
The Requiem followed the six section structure: I. Requiem Eternam; II. Dies Irae; III. Offertorium; IV. Sanctus; V. Agnus Dei; VI.Libera me.
Each section incorporated Wilfred Owen’s brutally honest texts with rhythmically compelling, frequently syncopated music, which drove those words even further. Bells, drums, various other percussive instrumentation, harp, exceptional brass, and woodwinds resonated as we moved painstakingly through the lyrical and narrative expressions.
Bostridge introduced the through-line of the “story” with the scathing text: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns.” His unique and nearly other-worldly voice sent us into the thicket of the battlefield. Instantly, we became outraged. In a matter of minutes, he gave voice to mutilation and fragility. “The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells…” and “What candles may be held to speed them all?” The bassoon punctuated these lines, then the Chorus with the “Kyrie Eleison,” with irony, bells resounding at the same time.
The “Dies Irae” entered with trumpet, trombone, tuba, and the heart beat of the drums and more percussion. Like Verdi’s own Requiem, Britten kept that beat going, alongside stabbing staccatos and scales of flutes. It was mortality in parallel.
Enter Goerne, with his thick, rich baritone: “Bugles sang, saddening the evening air; / And bugles answered… / Voices of boys were on the river-side. / Sleep mothered them…” It was all the voice could carry and we could hear. When soprano Anna Nechaeva entered, the texture of her fluent voice at once lifted and lightened the martial sound of Goerne’s baritone, while adding a suggestion of fire and wailing.
Bostridge and Goerne sang well together, like the elements of air and earth, each in his own way accenting the deepening rage. And death? “We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.”
How could we even begin to ignore such a cri de coeur? When we deny, when we ignore, this is what we get. This death, this defeat. Both the accumulation and the increasing relentlessness of the instrumentation: the plucked Basses (there were five); the constant beat of the drums; the bells of the two xylophones; and the insertions and leads of Bostridge, Goerne and Nechaeva emphasized the battalions of forces colliding, at once springing up and out and cascading down.
Goerne grew in vocal strength as he narrated the fragility of Isaac in the sacrifice story: “My father … but where the lamb for this burnt offering?” His voice pled with Abram: “My father, My father, My father;” the trio of repeats summoning up the irony and the pity.
One By One… Gone
One by one, the solo voices are brought to bear in Britten’s masterpiece. Each of the three soloists offered not only tonal contrast, but also the totality of the violence; one by one they die and no one stopped anything. Pappano made clean work of each section, moving from one to another, with superb connection and without drift. It resembled death; cut off, yet sewn on, one to the other.
The “Agnus Dei” brought another dimension when Bostridge’s high reach introduced another layer – the hauntedness of lost faith. Ascending scales and his precise articulation of vowels and consonants, especially at the ends of lines, raised the question, was faith for all lost? “Libera me,” the Chorus called to God, as if faith recovered could redeem such death and violence. But there is no avoidance, even when there seemed to be: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend. / I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned / Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.”
The intertwining of the boys’ chorus at different moments throughout could suggest another order: Angelic? Heavenly? Not Britten. Let us just say, he intoned, the war is over, at least the one (WWI) they used as the exemplar of all war, and the dead are dead. Tenor and baritone together sang, “Let us sleep now.” That is what we must say. That is what we have. And here are bells, the Boys’ Chorus, the harp leading the rest of the orchestra, Pappano giving all he could.
And Owen: “My subject is War, And the pity of War. The Poetry Is in the Pity… All the Poet Can Do Today, Is Warn.”