BBC Prom 72: War Requiem

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem
Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian
Huddersfield Choral Society, RSNO Chorus, RSNO Junior Chorus
Erin Wall, Allan Clayton, Russell Braun
Royal Albert Hall, 5 September 2018

As we approach the centenary of The Armistice that ended the First World War, it was an appropriate moment for The Proms to programme Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. It is a piece that has had fluctuating enthusiasm over the years since its first performance in May 1962 in the new Coventry Cathedral, designed by Basil Spence, and built alongside the ruins of the medieval cathedral building, destroyed during the 1940 Battle of Britain. A committed pacifist and almost certainly agnostic or atheist, Britten was perhaps not the most obvious choice to compose a requiem, but this combination of personal beliefs led to one of the most powerful of all compositions related to war. Combining the traditional Catholic Latin Requiem Mass with the poems of the war poet Wilfred Owen, resulting in an often heart-wrenching combination of pleas for peace with reflections on the horrors of war. 

The originally planned casting of an English tenor, a German baritone, and a Russian soprano is not often achieved these days, and wasn’t for the first performance, as the Russian singer was not allowed to travel to England. It and wasn’t on this occasion, with two Canadians and an English singer. What marked this performance out from any other that I have heard over the years was the extraordinarily sensitive interpretation by conductor Peter Oundjian, whose contract chief conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra ends soon. Along with Chorus Master Gregory Batsleer, he engineered the most exquisite sounds from the massed singers and the two orchestras.

The opening set the mood, the only just audible first choir entry immediately grasping the audience’s attention, although it sounds louder on the BBC Radio 3 broadcast than it did in the hall itself. The superb control of volume continues with several such magical moments. Peter Oundjian’s control of cadences was also impressive, notably, the final resolution of the choral sequence first heard at the end of the Kyrie, again at the end of the Amen of the Dies Irae, and most effectively at the conclusion of the entire Requiem with the hushed final Amen. That last moment produced one of the longest periods of silence before the applause started, a brilliant bit of audience direction by the conductor, and thankfully not ruined by one of those aren’t-I-clever-to-know-the-ending chaps – and they are always chaps.

Oundjian’s control of orchestral colour was also exemplary. The orchestra is enormous, but is generally used in chamber proportions, not least with the 12-strong second orchestra, positioned to the right of the stage, next to, and supporting the two male singers. Made up of a string quintet and one each of the woodwind instruments, harp and percussion, this orchestra provides an extraordinary array of textures and colour to the Wilfred Owen poems. Of the many instrumentalists, the key role is that of the organist, Edward Cohen, playing the chamber organ (which I think might have been digital on this occasion) with the children’s choir, here positioned in the side upper gallery of the Albert Hall. The organist seated at the main RAH organ had very little to do, despite having the bigger play-thing. The six percussions of both orchestras also had prominent roles, well executed.

The vocal soloists were soprano Erin Wall, tenor Allan Clayton, and baritone Russell Braun, the latter two being outstanding. I found the soprano’s strong vibrato excessive throughout, the only moment when it might have been justified being the Tremens factus sum ego, et timeo. The soprano sings from a central position behind the orchestra between the two sides of the enormous choir. 

Oundjian’s restrained use of volume made the more powerful moments all the stronger, notably in the Hosanna’s of the Sanctus, and the Dies illa, dies irae of the Libera me. And his focus on detail made those tear-inducing moments all the more intense, particularly “But the old man would not so, and slew his son / and half the seed of Europ, one by one”, the latter phrase repeated most movingly as the two male voices tumble over each other while the children on high ask the Lord to “lead them . . . through death to life”. The final Owen poem, “It seemed that out of battle I escaped”, is another moment of enormous emotional power, as a soldier comes across a “strange friend” on the battlefield, only to find that “I am the enemy you killed . . . yesterday . . . as you jabbed and killed. I parried, but my hands were loath and cold”. The concluding litany “Let us sleep now” intoned over the children singing In paradisum was beautifully done.

You can hear the performance on the BBC iPlayer here.