Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Britten War Requiem Pappano Bostridge Hampson Netrebko

The new EMI  recording of Britten's War Requiem with Antonio Pappano, Ian Bostridge, Thomas Hampson and Anna Netrebko could re-shape the way the piece is heard. That's not necessarily a bad thing as we get into lazy habits if we expect to hear the same thing done the same way all the time. All too often, performance practice smothers music under a fire blanket of false familiarity. Instead of listening to the music, we end up listening to what we think the music "ought" to be, which is not at all the same thing.

Britten's War Requiem is specially prone to that kind of non-listening. It's dangerous. With so many performances of the piece coming up, it's high time to ditch the baggage that's accrued to the piece and listen to it on its own terms.  What IS the War Requiem ? Everyone knows it was written to mark the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, but what does it really mean?

First piece of baggage to ditch: it's not part of the British choral tradition, unless we assume all choral music is "British" and traditional. Britten uses the Requiem Mass format, just ass hundreds of composers have done before and since. But is he using it in a traditional, religious way? Yes, in the sense that the piece concludes with virtues Christianity espouses, in theory. The Mass gives the piece structure but it's a starting point, not an end in itself. Far more original is the way Britten creates the piece as a paean to Wilfred Owen.

Wilfred Owen came from a family who had aspirations far greater than their actual income. He couldn't afford public school or university so his route to education was to enter the church. It wasn't a vocation. He suffered what seems like a massive breakdown and went to France - before the war. Joining the army came later. Not at all a steady career progression. Owern was middle class, "new" Britain, gay and an outsider, who made his own way. A lot like Britten himself. So approaching the War Requiem as music, and through Owen, suggests very different interpretations from than conventional performance practice - a "tradition" of only 50 years.

Antonio Pappano's Britten War Requiem is electrifying. He approaches the piece as drama, ditching the baggage of piety. Pappano understands the violent climaxes and sudden, shattering cut-offs into silence. This is "modern" music, just as Coventry Cathedral was rebuilt as modern architecture. Angularity, strength, unsettling discordance - much closer to meaning. Ditch Abraham's willingness to sacrifice, and Isaac's meek subservience. If people break the cycle of blind obedience, they can stand up to society's dependence on war as a means of resolving conflict. Pappano conducts the Choir and Orchestra of the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome, who aren't subservient to British and Brittenish baggage. This orchestral playing and choral singing is exceptionally intense, so the piece re-emerges vividly and violently anew. I'm reeling from the impact. I don't know where this was recorded, but it puts paid to the myth that the War Requiem "needs"church acoustics. Packaging doesn't make a piece work. Performance (and intelligent listening) does.

Soloists are Ian Bostridge, Thomas Hampson and Anna Netrebko. Bostridge is the ne plus ultra of Britten performance. His voice evokes the elusive qualities that make Britten so unique - qualities so disturbing that society in his time might not have been able to cope with. Britten's a hard nut to crack because he's oblique, evading easy scrutiny, even perhaps to himself. Now perhaps times have changed and we can begin to grasp his true originality. Bostridge's Agnus Dei suggests a terrifying image, glowing with surreal, apocalyptic light.

Hampson's anti-war credentials run very deeply indeed, and here he sings with sincere commitment, striking even in a career full of intense, passionate performances. He's too honest to attempt to sound German though he probably could since he sometimes slips into the accent when he's not singing, since he speaks German all the time. For Wilfred Owen, "war" meant the Somme. First World War propaganda was crudely racist. By connecting to The Boche as human beings rather than as barbarians, Owen was making a powerful statement. What Coventry suffered was minimal compared with what was happening elsewhere, but it was symbolic. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's presence at the premiere was essential. This is a performance practice worth respecting because it embeds meaning on a very deep level. On the other hand, it's not easy to sing, so if top German soloists like DFD or Goerne aren't available, it's better to use a good non-German, and Hampson is as German as any native English speaker could be.

Anna Netrebko, a Britten specialist?  I wouldn't expect her to sing The Governess or Les Illuminations but here's she's excellent. Britten's championship of Shostakovich and Rostopovich gave them an international profile that protected them from the full force of Soviet repression. A Russian soloist is also valid performance practice, though the text is in Latin. The soloists doesn't have to sound "Russian" whatever that might be, as long as she can create the part musically. It functions at the pinnacle of the choir, surrounded by other voices, much in the way the Archangel St Michael stands out from other angels. St Michael is a warrior who, in the Book of Revelation, defeats Satan and heralds the End of Time when the dead shall be raised. He's also one of the few angels in the Old Testament. The part brings Russia and the Holocaust into the War Requiem, otherwise so much a memorial to the Western Front. Netrebko sings with fiery, operatic intensity, absolutely in keeping with what the part may mean.  One reason why the War Requiem is often misunderstood is because listeners are more attuned to conventional big displays rather than to the real narrative of the piece which pivots around the quirky, surreal settings of Owen's poems and on the two male protagonists. The female soloist and the choir(s) serve as illuminating backdrop. The female soloists shouldn't dominate, but Netrebko' projects such strong personality that she makes you want to cheer.

More on Britten here than on any non dedicated site

1 comment:

Barbara Miller said...

I assume that the use of Netrebko is a nod to the fact that the part was originally written for Galina Vishnevskaya, which brought the third major WWII nationality into the mix, an ally which at the time of the premiere was shaping up to be the next big enemy. Because Vishnevskaya wasn't allowed to leave Russia to sing at the premiere, Heather Harper sang instead. I read that Vishnevskaya wasn't comfortable singing in English but was comfortable in Italian, which is at least part of why Britten used the text of the Latin mass.

BTW, I had to type all this in twice because once again I lost it in the process of logging in to post the comment through Wordpress. You might get more comments if this process weren't quite so complicated (essentially it tells me I have to go to the wordpress site myself to log in, and the window telling me this does not carry over the text of my comment.