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What Passing Bells...?

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
10/23/2011 -  
Benjamin Britten: War Requiem, opus 66
Sabina Cvilak (Soprano), Ian Bostridge (Tenor), Simon Keenlyside (Baritone)
American Boychoir, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz (Director), London Symphony Chorus, Joseph Cullen (Director), London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (Conductor)

G. Noseda (© Sussie Ahlberg)

The London Symphony Orchestra played two Requiem Masses last week. The first, with fervent straightforward adherence to the ritual of the Church, was written probably for a concert hall. The second, last night, was unorthodox, questioning, and composed for St.Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry Cathedral, itself–like the poet Wilfred Owen– the victim of war.

Yet Benjamin Britten’s ironically titled War Requiem, has, in its eclectic languages (Latin, Greek, Owen’s English poetry) and music (Plainchant, Bach trumpets, perhaps a quote from Verdi in the Lachrymosa) has, to these ears, more of an endearing and universal quality than Beethoven’s Solemn Mass with its calls for God’s blessings.

Admittedly, while the Beethoven sounded perfectly fine in Avery Fisher Hall, with its chorus, orchestra and soloists, the War Requiem was missing the spaces of a cathedral. The American Boychoir, with its lovely innocent voices, was sometimes unbalanced when with the full choir. The little chamber group with the male soloists was overcome by the voices. True, soprano soloist Sabina Cvilak, placed with the full choir in the background, did offer that spatial resonance with her solos. And true too, the entire ensemble was given a massive lift thanks to a conductor I had never heard before, Gianandrea Noseda.

Mr. Noseda did not conduct a cut-and-dried piece here. His involvement had a logic, an organic volition that kept the movements going, giving special emphasis to that which Britten did most carefully, the Owen poems. Keeping full control of his might forces crowed onto the stage is probably more difficult than when they are separated in a large cathedral. But he conducted with such power that the work had a hefty power throughout.

The London Symphony Orchestra was at its best, from the brass fanfare of the Dies Irae (shades of Verdi and Berlioz!) to the crystal-clear orchestral fugue of the Offerotrium. The London Symphony Chorus has probably sung this countless times, but singing the Recordare or the final Libera me was given special poignancy.

The Beethoven Missa Solemnis gave little chance for soloists to shine out, but Benjamin Britten had a special meaning in the original War Requiem to give personality to his singers. There, they were purposely chosen at one Englishman, one Russian and one German. Last night, we did not have that symbolism, but the intensity of the music spoke for itself.

S. Cvilak (© Courtesy of the artist)

Perhaps I enjoyed Ms. Cvilak above all for her soaring voice coming out of the choir rather than in front. But the two males had the more forceful English-language roles, with Messrs Bostridge and Keenlyside were moving.

Nowhere did they–or the composer–get better than the final poem of two warriors who have died and now recognize each other.

“Let us sleep now,” they sing, to the accompaniment of the same bells heard at the start.

“What passing bells for those who die as cattle?” asked Owen. “Only the monstrous anger of the guns.”

Owen wrote of the Great War, Britten set this 20 years after the Second World War when the embers of Vietnam were being already stirred. And we heard it while involved in two…or three...or perhaps more wars.

The words, the music can, as the poet says, “only warn.” At the end, the audience applauded as they would applaud an opera, quartet or symphony. Personally, I wanted not the eternal silence of the grave but silence sufficient to understand Britten’s mighty achievement.

Harry Rolnick



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