We talk to the brilliant British tenor about performing Britten's War Requiem
Tenor James Gilchrist joins the baritone Stephan Loges, Bristol Choral Society, Gloucester Choral Society, the Choristers of Bristol Cathedral and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for a centenary performance of Britten's this month. We spoke to him ahead of the concert, at Bristol's Colston Hall.
What are the challenges of performing Britten’s War Requiem?
I feel there are both practical and emotional problems with performing this work. Its scale presents huge problems from the outset: it’s scored for two orchestras, a big choir, three soloists, and a children’s choir. Britten originally conceived it with three conductors – one for the main orchestra, choir and soprano, one for the chamber orchestra and male soloists, and one for the children’s choir and their organ. All to be separated in space. Interestingly, it’s rarely done with so many conductors now, and the main orchestra and chamber orchestra share the main platform under one maestro. But the logistics of getting everybody there and doing the right thing at the right time is not easy. There is a constant shifting of focus: the larger forces articulate the Latin Mass, and the chamber orchestra and two male soloists perform settings of Wilfred Owen’s poetry. It's like a film: we’re seeing a big picture one minute, and then a close-up.
And this is a piece of emotional extremes – what challenges does that present for you as a singer?
It’s a hugely emotional work to perform, and this presents its own problems too. As a singer, you need to maintain some distance so that you can actually do your job: I am constantly reminding myself that it’s the audience that needs to be moved, not me. There are parts when I find this appallingly difficult. Singing the lines 'are limbs, full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?' without a catch in the voice is none too easy. It’s such a delicate balance: you don’t want to sing in a cold way, but you mustn’t let your feelings impede your vocal delivery.
What do you think is the effect of the poetry by Wilfred Owen mixed in with the Requiem texts?
The Owen poems make this work suddenly personal. Here is a complete identification with one man, with a short, intimate scene, with a passing thought. This brings this piece from the showy, extrovert, outward to the appalled, affected, damaged, and intensely personal.
Do you think the work still has something to say about war today or is it very much of its time?
We seem to be fighting more and more and the voices of workers for peace seem ever more ignored. I think this piece is more important now than it ever was.
What is the tenor role like to sing in this piece?
I love being able to spin a long, tender line in the echo of a great Earth-shattering noise. It’s so wonderfully written for the voice. It’s a role that has great demands: the Agnus Dei is not easy, and one needs great power in 'out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to death' and great sensitivity in the last movement. It’s also a challenge to pace it right at times, to feel that the spaces and hiatuses are hinging for the right amount of time. But Britten sets the poems so well, and it’s always a huge privilege to see the audience being carried through this work.
You’re performing the work in Bristol – a city which was seriously damaged during WWII – what extra resonances will that add to the performance?
Recently I was lucky enough to perform it in Dresden in the newly refurbished Frauenkirche. The feeling that horrors were desperately close is incredibly powerful. Of course, the Second World War is now quite a long time ago. There aren’t that many people around still who really remember it. But the walls remember, the river, the city itself. And it’s so critical that this cry for peace should be heard in a city that bore so much terror at the time.
What other works by Britten would you suggest people turn to, if the War Requiem is something they’ve enjoyed listening to?
I am more and more drawn to the vocal music. Quite soon after writing the War Requiem, he wrote the little-performed Cantata Misericordium which echoes some of the themes. And for power of word-setting, I’d reach for his John Donne Sonnets. Both of these works have immediate impact for sure, but it’s the intimacy and profundity of the word setting that I find more and more important the more I get to know them. Neither of these works have the grandeur of the War Requiem with its full symphony-orchestra power, but they speak straight to the heart.
James Gilchrist performs in Britten's 'War Requiem', conducted by Adrian Partington, at Colston Hall in Bristol. Visit the Colston Hall website for more information.