BBC Proms 2014: Britten War Requiem
Andris Nelsons conducted an impactful performance of this pacifist masterpiece
Every performance of Britten’s War Requiem should be a ‘momentous occasion’, wrote The Times critic William Mann after hearing the piece’s premiere at Coventry Cathedral in 1962. This year’s Proms performance was both an occasion – a performance to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War – and momentous.
Andris Nelsons was in charge of bringing together all the varied elements of this ambitious work: three soloists, a children’s choir, chorus, orchestra and chamber orchestra, singing both the Latin Requiem text and poems by the great war poet Wilfred Owen. It’s both a work that needs to live moment-by-moment, savouring each cleverly calculated effect, and that needs to convey a sense of the bigger structure, of more inevitable forces at work. It ranges from moments of high, Verdian drama to quiet, disconcerting intimacy, but is resolute in its anti-war message.
The precise, insistent, almost robotic articulation of the BBC Proms Youth Choir plunged us into the strange limbo of the Requiem aeternam; this young choir (both the members' and group's age) was on form throughout, with superbly controlled dynamics and exquisite blend, from the hushed Kyrie eleison, to the power unleashed at ever-increasing levels at each return of the Dies irae. Up in the gallery, far out of sight, the CBSO Children’s Choir were ethereal voices of innocence, floating down as if sung by cherubs on clouds.
There was a measured, assured feel to much of Nelson’s pacing, matched by a steely precision from the musicians. In the first Dies irae, this felt like a deliberate statement: that this was from the century of dehumanised, machine warfare. The two male soloists seemed like small, lonely figures in the face of this massed force. At first, it sounded like rather hard work for tenor Toby Spence in ‘What passing bells’, despite his efficiency and clarity, while baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann mixed slightly distorted vowels with a poignant voice of world-weariness.
But the two soon warmed up, with Spence giving a direct, ineffably moving performance of ‘Move him into the sun’ and the pair blending well in their duet ‘Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to death’. Soprano Susan Gritton was full of imploring emotion in the Lacrimosa, her voice embodying the beautiful tears of which she sang.
Sometimes the restraint exercised by Nelsons seemed too much, dampening a sense of wild freedom; while the insect-like murmurings of the start of the Sanctus built with real intensity, when they were unleashed it didn’t quite make you want to flee in terror. But it paid dividends for the overall shaping of the piece: at the highest point of outward drama, in the Libera Me, the effect of hearing the Dies irae again, and for the final time, was spine-tingling.
It’s followed by perhaps the piece’s most unsettling yet human moment. The tenor, escaping out of the battle, meets the baritone, ‘the enemy you killed, my friend’. Spence and Müller-Brachmann judged the moment perfectly: reconciled as they sang together their message of peace, ‘Let us sleep now’. And then we were escorted to Paradise, in weightless angelic sound.
It ended in silence. An incredible, long silence. Andris Nelsons brought his hands together as if in prayer. And even when he dropped them, no one wanted to be the first to clap and break the spell.