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A solemn masterpiece returns

Roy Thomson Hall
11/08/2018 -  and November 11*, 2018
Benjamin Britten: War Requiem, Op. 66
Tatiana Pavlovskaya (soprano), Toby Spence (tenor), Russell Braun (baritone)
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, David Fallis (choir master), Toronto Children’s Chorus, Elise Bradley (artistic director), The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey (conductor)

T. Pavlovskaya (© Jag Gundu)

With Remembrance Day upon us, and this time observing the centenary of the armistice ending World War I, Britten’s War Requiem is an obvious choice to mark the occasion.

The evening got off to a hesitant start when the conductor read, haltingly, without amplification, a preamble referring to ancient indigenous use of the land on which Toronto sits. When he began I thought it his statement was going to be more pertinent to the piece, even though the work itself says more than any speech could ever say. Many people (myself among them) are getting tired of the penchant for making pre-performance statements, whether relevant to the music or not.

I recall being impressed when Mr. Tovey conducted the work here in 1995 (I believe) and, overall, it went very well this time, too. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is very large (around 130 singers) but maintained impressive unison. The Toronto Children’s Chorus, 66-strong, also impressed. Their director, Elise Bradley, conducted them separately, a practice reminiscent of the work’s premiere in Coventry in 1962, when Britten conducted the orchestra and soloists, while Meredith Davies led the choirs. There are actually two orchestral groups, with a chamber orchestra comprised of TSO principals; all this makes for a dispersed array to keep track of.

Orchestral and choral balances were fine, but the soloists not so much. Tatiana Pavlovskaya commanded every moment she sang, and would have done so even if not placed at the front of the stage. A few years ago the equally commanding Christine Brewer sang the part, but placed at the front of the choir (and behind the orchestra), thus resulting in a better balance. The two men have more words to put across as they recite Wilfred Owens’s bitter poetry. This went reasonably well, although I wanted more voice from Mr. Braun in his opening poem, “Bugles sang”. Ms Pavlovskaya’s ensuing “Liber scriptus” pretty much annihilated what had gone before.

There was just one notable hitch: in the Offertorium when, in the Owen poem about Abraham and Isaac, the tenor and baritone in unison recite the angel’s lines; the lines do not have a distinctive melody that can carry the voices along, so careful attention must be paid. Toby Spence closely watched the conductor while Mr. Braun fell behind.

Mr. Tovey held a very lengthy silence at the end, nicely respected by the near-capacity house.

Michael Johnson



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