A post on Gavin Plumley's blog Entartete Musik and a CD review posted recently on the NPR website both reminded me that yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of the premiere of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. A truly monumental work, the War Requiem was written for the consecration of Coventry's new Anglican cathedral, which was built to replace a medieval structure destroyed by German bombs during the Blitz. In an attempt to convey the horror and pointlessness of armed conflict, Britten creatively blended the traditional Latin requiem texts with verses from the English war poet Wilfred Owen; while a large chorus and soprano soloist give voice to the universal expression of mourning contained in the propers of the Requiem Mass, a tenor and a baritone representing soldiers on opposing sides use Owen's words to personalize the experience of combat. Some may doubt how well the whole thing hangs together, but the best passages of the War Requiem carry an emotional weight that can move even the most critical of listeners (with notable exceptions, of course, including Igor Stravinsky).
The War Requiem was written for a very particular time and place, making it - in Britten's own words - "a work for an occasion." Fifty years after its first performance, the War Requiem very much remains an 'occasional' piece, one that is hard to really appreciate without considering the context in which it was written - a context that is not limited to the consecration of Coventry Cathedral, but also embraces the larger cultural legacy of the First and Second World Wars as well as the concerns and fears of the Cold War. On another level, contemporary performances of the War Requiem can take on an 'occasional' aura for the simple reason that the choral and orchestral demands of the piece keep it from being performed often enough to become really familiar to audiences.
Having attended two performances of the War Requiem, I've found that the work elicits a stronger personal reaction when experienced as a live event than it does when heard in recorded form. The first time I heard the War Requiem live was in December 2010 at Carnegie Hall, with Seiji Ozawa conducting his own Saito Kinen Orchestra and three Japanese choirs with two Americans (Christine Goerke and Anthony Dean Griffey) and one German (Matthias Goerne) as soloists. The concert marked Ozawa's return to the podium after a year-long battle with cancer, during which the frail maestro apparently sought to conserve his diminished energies for this particular event: in an interview at the time, Ozawa said that he spent his convalescence studying the score of the War Requiem to prepare for the Carnegie Hall concert. On that winter night, Ozawa and the musicians before him turned in a deeply felt and unforgettable performance, offering a reverential reading of the War Requiem that honored Britten's intention of warning audiences about "the pity of War."
My second live experience of the War Requiem didn't move me as much as the first, but it still stands out in my concert-going memory. The performers at this October 2011 concert at Avery Fisher Hall were top-notch: the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the American Boychoir handled the orchestral and choral elements of the piece, with Sabina Cvilak, Ian Bostridge and Simon Keenlyside as vocal soloists and Gianandrea Noseda on the podium. While Ozawa seemed to emphasize the ritual solemnity of the War Requiem, Noseda and his forces brought out the dramatic contrasts in the score and Britten's chosen texts; this was an edge-of-the-seat performance that might have seemed out of place in the sacred setting where the work was first performed. If there was anything really 'occasional' about this performance, I suppose it was the fact that the London Symphony Orchestra had chosen to program the War Requiem in a season that ends fifty years after its participation in the first studio recording of the work. As it happens, the LSO has just released a new recording of the War Requiem featuring most of the performers that I heard in New York in October; I just ordered a copy of this recording, and I look forward to hearing it when I return to Philly in a few weeks.
The Manresa program mentioned in my last post continues apace, so readers who have been praying for or reflecting mindfully on those of us here are asked to keep it up. This won't be my last post before I move to the next stop on my summer itinerary, so stay tuned. AMDG.