miércoles, octubre 02, 2013

Britten´s “War Requiem”, an essential pacifist message

            Benjamin Britten was a lifelong pacifist, as were his companion Peter Pears and his friend the poet W.H.Auden. When WWII exploded he was in the USA, but he returned to Great Britain during the war and was accepted as conscientious objector and liberated from military service. Early examples of his commitment were the "Ballad of Heroes" Op.14 (1939) and the powerful "Sinfonia da Requiem" Op.20 (1940) in its parts "Lacrimosa", "Dies Irae" and "Requiem aeternam".

            His opera "Peter Grimes" put Britten in the front rank of British composers and several other operas, as well as his magnificent "Variations and fugue on a theme of Purcell", affirmed his reputation. But if one has to chose a towering creation, it surely must be his "War Requiem", Op.66 (1962), commissioned for the inauguration of the new Coventry Cathedral (the old one had been bombed by the Nazis in 1940).

            Ever since I attended the B.A. première of this mighty score I have been convinced that it is the most important choral-symphonic work composed after WWII. That event happened on October 30, 1966, at the Colón, with Alexander Gibson conducting and three first-rate vocalists: Heather Harper (who was the soprano at the world première), tenor André Turp and baritone Ángel Mattiello. I had my own musical magazine at the time and I felt that Gibson rated the front cover of that edition. In 1967 it was Britten himself who was in the cover, when he offered with Pears a unique recital also at the Colón.

            When the "War Requiem" was offered again in 1979, Antonio Russo did a great job of conducting and the vocal artists were even better: Harper, tenor Gerald English and baritone John Shirley-Quirk. By that time I had obtained the complete score (Boosey and Hawkes) and I followed with it that performance as I had with the marvelous records conducted by Britten himself with the artists he had wanted for Coventry: Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and English tenor Peter Pears (the men were present at Coventry but the soprano wasn´t allowed at the time to come out of the USSR). Quite obviously he had chosen them not only for their quality but as a symbol of reconciliation with the protagonist nations of WWII.

            Only 29 months after the 1979 BA performance, the Malvinas War ran counter to the "War Requiem" ´s message. Later on, there were more performances widely spaced led by Steuart Bedford and Pedro Calderón. As far as the values of the work go, it was obviously a fine idea to programme it again in our city. However, there´s a very moot point: the Colón opera season is miserably scarce, just eight titles when it should be of at least twelve, so to offer a Requiem substituting for an opera means that only seven are operatic, and if you add that one of the seven is an Argentine opera, you have just six out of the enormous world repertoire. And no Wagner in a Wagner year...

            The structure imagined by Britten is of great complexity and only a master hand could pull it off, which he triumphantly did. Apart from the soloists you need a mixed chorus, a boys chorus, a big symphony orchestra and a 12-piece chamber orchestra. Two basic elements alternate with dazzling variety: the Latin text of the Requiem Mass (soprano, both choruses and the symphony orchestra) and a series of poems on war written by Wilfred Owen, who died at the end of WWI on the front (1918) sung by two soldiers (tenor, baritone) with the chamber orchestra.

            The Owen poems are very powerful and tragic; the last one has a phrase that synthesizes its message: reconciliation ("I am the enemy you killed, my friend"). It amazes me the skill and the emotive punch with which the fragments of the Requiem cohere with their following poem almost overlapping, ruminative pieces contrasting with enormous climaxes, especially the "Lacrimosa", the "Libera me", the savage "Hosanna" and the final 48-pentagram piece, combining different texts from all participants. As should happen in any good performance of this music (and this one rated high) I was left speechless at the end,  with tears in my eyes.

            Guillermo Scarabino is now 70 and he has had a half-century career. Surely he has never done something better than this perfectly rehearsed, expressive but contained performance, in which every element was not only intellectually understood but also communicated to the artists and the public. "Tempi" may have been slightly fast but it never bothered me.

            The two orchestras (both from the "Estable") were in top shape, very incidental smudges weighing  little. The choirs were both admirable: the mixed Colón under Miguel Martínez, and the Children´s under César Bustamante (who also played the organ). The latter included girls along with the boys, but they sounded as one, strikingly pure and beautiful, magically placed in the chandelier  (the sound seemed heavenly).

            Of the soloists I especially liked baritone Víctor Torres, his voice in excellent condition, his singing always musical and expressive and with good English. Tamara Wilson (debut) at first had excessive vibrato but she soon tamed it and sang well (she replaced the originally announced Carla Filipcic Holm). I was disappointed by tenor Enrique Folger, whose emphatic and melodramatic singing, often harsh, isn´t what Britten wanted. But the overall result was worthy of a marvellous creation.

For Buenos Aires Herald

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