S&H Concert review

Britten: War Requiem, London Philharmonic Orchestra, John Eliot Gardiner, Royal Festival Hall (ME)

As the LPO's director said in his opening speech, dedicating this 50th anniversary performance, it never rains... two weeks before, Kurt Masur had been replaced by John Eliot Gardiner, and the day before, both the soprano and baritone soloists had withdrawn due to illness, leaving Ian Bostridge as the only survivor of the original team. Anyone sceptical that the replacement of Masur by Gardiner, and Thomas Quasthoff by Christopher Maltman, would be an improvement, would not have remained so for long. Gardiner conducted as though his life depended upon it, with the orchestra riveted to him throughout, and as for Maltman, with the exception of a (hardly surprising) nervous beginning to "Bugles sang.," he covered himself in glory.

From the very beginning of the "Requiem Aeternam," it was clear that this was to be a magisterial performance; the huge forces of choir, boys' choir and orchestra blended superbly, with the mourning bells so evocatively introducing the tritone which takes on such symbolic importance in the work. Bostridge's "What passing bells.." was the first of many superbly sung solos; his exemplary diction, feeling for the words and expressive interpretation could not have been bettered; he suggested bitterness and anger at "No mockeries for them." as well as tenderness at ".the holy glimmers of goodbyes.." in a truly masterly way.

Following this, the full Chorus gave a stunning "Dies Irae;" what a joy to see and hear such massive forces under total yet not dictatorial control, and how superbly the "Tuba Mirum" blended into the baritone's first solo. Maltman began nervously, with his first two lines coloured by a strained and clouded tone - you could almost hear his thoughts from studying his face as he waited to sing & then approached his first utterances - "Oh God - I'm replacing Quasthoff - can I do this? I've got to stop them hearing him in their minds ..." This would be impossible, since anyone familiar with the German bass-baritone cannot help but hear his sonorous low notes in such lines as "The shadow of the morrow weighed on men," and savour in imagination his tremulously moving intonation throughout. However, once Maltman had got over the hurdle of the first lines, his own lovely, fine-grained, lyric baritone was heard to full advantage, and he sang the arching phrases with moving skill.

I had not heard Melanie Diener before, and she certainly was a vivid replacement for Felicity Lott. Her "Liber scriptor" announced a voice with real edge to it, perhaps a little on the hard side yet dramatic and secure in the high notes; I can just imagine her as Donna Elvira. She sang the "Lacrimosa" with clarity and sensitivity to the text, and blended superbly with the chorus in the "Sanctus." I would have liked a little more in the way of suppleness in the phrasing, but this is to quibble in an unfair way when a singer has not had the full time to prepare.

The highlights of the performance were the tenor solo "Move him into the sun," the baritone solo "After the blast of lightning" and the marvellous "duet" in "So Abram rose." It is not often that one can say that one is moved to tears by a piece of singing, even in such inherently affecting music as this, but I would challenge anyone not to be so moved by the kind of singing which Bostridge gave us in this solo. He evoked the poet's sorrow without a trace of cloying sentimentality, achieving the ideal contrast between the pathos of "Gently its touch awoke him once" and the deep, anguished despair of "Was it for this the clay grew tall?" His phrasing and enunciation of the last two lines will stay with me for a long time; he really is something special.

Maltman gave a superb account of "After the blast of lightning," finally banishing any lingering memories of Quasthoff with the youthful nobility of his burnished tone; this sounded like the singing of a future Heldenbariton, something I would not previously have thought of him as encompassing. He seemed almost to be exceeding his own natural capacities - inspired by the occasion, of course, yet how magisterially and yet lyrically he sang lines such as "Nor my titanic tears, the sea,be dried." You could easily imagine this voice in "Blick ich' umher."

The duet was wonderful; tenor and baritone blended seamlessly in "When lo! an angel called him out of Heaven," and the bitter final line was searingly dramatic. An aside, but it was moving to see these two men, who must be around 32 and 36 but who both look about 25, singing together - in their ramrod straight stance and boyish yet severe demeanour, you could so clearly imagine them going off to the Front with their rifles on their backs.

The final section showed the whole ensemble at its best; orchestral playing, never less than accurate and beautifully shaped throughout, was here as fine as could be desired, the voices of the boys' chorus floated the "In Paradisum" with ecstatic grace above those of the make soloists, and Bostridge and Maltman gave the most moving account of Britten's setting of Owen's "It seemed that out of battle," that I have ever heard - and I did hear Pears and DFD perform it, in a performance that I still recall with sharp clarity even though I was only 11 at the time. Bostridge's "Lifting distressful hands as if to bless" and Maltman's "I am the enemy you killed, my friend" were deeply affecting. I suppose one really need a German-accented voice for the latter line, but I think I can sacrifice not hearing Quasthoff there in exchange for his not having to negotiate "Even the sweetest wells that ever were," although he does make a much better fist of that than DFD.

After the final "Let us sleep now.." and beautifully melancholy "Requiescant in pace," the audience gave the performers the ultimate accolade of a half-minute's silence before bursting into thunderous applause, and rightly so; Gardiner conducted a stunning performance of this great work which can have left no one in any doubt as to its place amongst the masterpieces of the last century.

Melanie Eskenazi

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