Sunday, 13 October 2013

Britten War Requiem Jurowski Bostridge Goerne LPO

Ian Bostridge and Matthias Goerne are an ideal partnership in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, as demonstrated at the Royal Festival Hall with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Bostridge and Goerne's voices complement each other perfectly. Between them they cover the whole range in the score but, much more importantly, they access the deepest levels of meaning.

Britten's War Requiem is now played so often that it's become the very kind of warhorse Britten did not want it to become.  It's often performed in churches because it was written for Coventry Cathedral,. But few remember that the Cathedral was completely built anew, a statement of faith in modernity and the power of change. The War Requiem references the past, but celebrates new beginnings. Far too often, it's performed as a soothing act of public piety, instead of challenging complacency. How can we, who have known the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Stalingrad, Dresden, Nanjing  and the endless wars of attrition in the Middle East, find meaning in a piece which refers to the Western Front in the First World War and the Latin Mass? By treating Britten's War Requiem as music, as opposed to reverential ritual, Jurowski and his soloists restore it to a drama of human conflict and surreal transformation.

As with his Peter Grimes (reviewed here) Jurowski's approach focuses on the intrinsic musical form, free from received performance practice. The very structure suggests fragmentation, which Jurowski wisely doesn't smooth over. An unusual chamber orchestra, with two harps, emerges from a more conventional full orchestra and choir. The brass in the Dies Irae sounded military rather than heavenly, matching the tense march rhythms in the chorus. An explosive, violent atmosphere, for war is neither romantic nor patriotic. "Bugles sang, saddening the evening air", sang Goerne, dark tones supported by horn, lit up by solo flute. The tenor/baritone passage felt like a joust - short, sharp thrusts, parried swiftly.  Brief choral respite before "Great gun towering toward Heaven" Goerne sang."May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!". No solace here. When Bostridge sang "Move him into the sun", he created an eerie atmosphere, suggesting the strange, unsteady light and stillness that can descend over battlefields when tumult subsides. Far more perceptive than pure sweetness of timbre. "Was it for this the clay grew tall"?

The "Abraham and Isaac" passage in the Offertorium was superbly surreal. One minute, we're in a battlefield and now witness Abraham in biblical times slaying  his son and "half the seed of Europe, one by one." Then suddenly, we're transferred to the Sanctus and its ringing bells, suggesting a holy point in the Mass.  The soprano, Evelina Dobraceva, substituting for Tatiana Monogarova, sang with great purity. But what sort of "Hosanna" is this?  Tiny, tense figures in the orchestra, suggesting unease. Pounding timpani. Goerne sang powerfully, but with restraint and clarity "Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified, nor my titanic tears, the sea, be dried". The baritone part is traditionally taken by a German, for extra-musical reasons, but I think it also works because the singer's accent emphasizes the universal timelessness of the piece.  Latin, furthermore, is a language everyone can connect to but no-one really knows how it's pronounced, nor ever will.

From this arises the Agnus Dei. Bostridge sang with truly incandescant intensity. This is no conventional "Lamb who takest away the sins of the world"..The text is Wilfred Owen, who gave up the church. Bostridge held the high, final "Dona nobis pacem" so it seemed to float off into the ether, suggesting cosmic mysteries we can intuit but not completely comprehend.

Swirling dissonance in Libera Me, cross-currents in the choruses well articulated. "Tremens factus sum ego" sang Dobraceva, her voice rising to near-scream. The orchestra seemed to explode, cymbals crashed, and a wall of wild, waving sound engulfed the auditorium. Then Bostridge with minimal accompaniment. " guns thumped, or down the flues made moan".  Perhaps we are in some strange no-man's land, or afterlife? Bostridge's instinctive feel for the surreal reached apotheosis. "Strange friend", he sang "Here is no cause to mourn". The depth of Goerne's timbre suggested a voice rising from the grave, or from the depths of the earth. The men were surrounded by the small ensemble, so each subtle detail can be heard clearly: two violins, oboe, two harps, creating a sense of separation from the orchestra and from the world.  Owen's Strange Meeting describes enemies meeting on common ground, away from past conflicts, so it's a good reason for using German singers. (Russians and women weren't really in his remit).   "I am the enemy you killed, my friend" sang Goerne with gentleness, "I knew you in this dark". No rancour, no bitterness now, but a new dawn of reconciliation.

Please see my review of the new CD Britten War Requiem : Pappano, Bostridge, Hampson, Nebtrenko.   Orchestrally and choir wise, Pappano/Accademia Ste Cecilia Rome leaves Jurowski/LPO for dead  Bostridge and Goerne, however were outstanding because they fitted so well together and got the surreal, danegrous quality of the texts more instinctively.
Claire Seymour, author of The Operas of Benjamin Britten, reviews this concert for Opera Today.

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