This performance of War Requiem was given in Coventry
Cathedral, the building for which it was written. It took place
fifty years to the day since the work received its première
there, when it was conducted jointly by Meredith Davies and
the composer. The orchestra then, as in this performance, was
the CBSO though for the première members of The Melos
Ensemble provided the chamber orchestra; fifty years on that
task was entrusted to the CBSO principals. Once again we had
an English tenor and a German baritone with Mark Padmore and
Hanno Müller-Brachmann taking the roles created by Pears
and Fischer-Dieskau. Kristine Opolais was to have sung the soprano
role in this performance but she was indisposed and the Canadian
soprano, Erin Wall, deputised. Fifty years ago the CBSO choruses
hadn’t been founded but they turned out in full force
to mark the anniversary.
I had the good fortune to be present in Coventry Cathedral to
this concert for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard.
It was an unforgettable and moving evening and viewing this
film of the concert brings it all back. The film also adds a
significant dimension in that one can hear the performance in
a better balanced way and in greater detail thanks to the microphones.
One significant beneficiary of that is Erin Wall, who was somewhat
backwardly placed in the front rows of the choir on the evening
and it was asking a great deal for her to project over a long
distance and over the top of Britten’s full orchestra.
Incidentally, very deliberately I have not re-read my review
of the concert as I wanted to come to this DVD with ears unbiased
by anything except memory.
Let it be said at once that the performance is absolutely superb.
I’m sure everyone concerned was caught up not just in
the music but also in the occasion and was inspired to give
of their very best. At the end of the performance, as the ovation
commences, it’s clear that Mark Padmore, for one, had
been deeply moved. Mind you, that’s scarcely surprising
for he had just given a performance of spellbinding intensity.
I recall that I was deeply impressed by him on the night but
my seat, though only a few rows from the front, was right across
the other side of the nave - in front of the percussion. So
though I could hear him very well I couldn’t see him too
clearly. It’s evident from the film, as it was from his
singing on the night, that he’s absolutely caught up in
the performance and he delivers the Owen poems with great feeling.
Actually, though, one of the most telling moments comes when
he’s not singing. During the baritone solo in ‘Strange
Meeting’, as Müller-Brachmann gets to the lines where
he reveals himself as the German soldier killed by his English
adversary, the camera is on the German baritone in left profile.
Behind him we see Padmore, who is standing next to him, turn
and look at him intently as he sings those words. It’s
a telling and heart-stopping moment and a gesture done with
no artifice on Padmore’s part.
Prior to that Padmore’s contribution to ‘Strange
Meeting’ has been exceptionally fine. Indeed, both male
soloists rise to new heights of eloquence in these pages, combining
to make the setting an enthralling and emotionally draining
one and from which we all need the beneficent release of “Let
us sleep now”. Earlier, Padmore is as superb as I’d
remembered in ’At a Calvary near the Ancre’ (Agnus
Dei). He’s plangently expressive in the outer sections
of this poem and vividly bitter of utterance in the central
section, beginning at “Near Golgotha strolls many a priest.”
I vividly recall how wonderfully controlled was his delivery
of the rising phrase that ends this movement: I’m thrilled
to have this moment preserved through the recording. Another
pinnacle in his performance is ‘Futility’ (“Move
him into the sun.”) He’s vividly communicative here,
his plangent yet steely tone and great care for the words, which
he enunciates with great clarity, combining to telling effect.
Here, and elsewhere, Padmore is deeply involved and involving.
His is a magnificent and moving reading of the tenor part.
I was very taken with Hanno Müller-Brachmann’s performance
on the night but, if anything, I’m even more impressed
by what I see and hear on this DVD. I admire the full, cultured
tone and the intensity that he brings to ‘Bugles Sang’
- and to everything else he does. He’s imposing in ‘Sonnet
on seeing a piece of our artillery brought into action’
(“Be slowly lifted up…”) and distinguishes
himself in both of the duets with the tenor, especially in ‘Strange
meeting’. His English pronunciation is excellent - as
is his diction, just like Mark Padmore’s. Inevitably,
perhaps, his English is slightly accented and this - and, even
more so, the sheer quality of his voice - put me in mind on
several occasions of the great creator of this part, Dietrich
Fischer-Dieskau. Though Müller-Brachmann’s interpretation
is very much his own I can pay him no higher compliment than
to make the comparison.
I can hear Erin Wall much better on the DVD than I could on
the evening of the concert and she sounds very good. On the
night she seemed to be making a great effort to project in ‘Liber
scriptus’ - not surprisingly, given the nature of the
music she has to sing at this point. By the way, that’s
not a criticism at all, just a statement of fact. However, the
microphones confirm her command at this point and also her dramatic
presence at the start of the Sanctus. My memory is that the
lighter scoring and softer dynamics of the Benedictus were to
her advantage and on this recording we can hear her giving a
lovely performance of this section. Unless you are a singer
with the histrionic power of a Vishnevskaya the soprano role
must be a massive challenge and Miss Wall, though not a Slavic
diva, does an excellent job.
At the première the Festival Chorus, formed specially
for the purpose - and to perform The Beatitudes
by Bliss - were simply not up to the challenges of Britten’s
score. No such problems for the CBSO Chorus, who sing superbly
throughout. Passages where they are particularly impressive
include the Recordare, which the sopranos and altos put across
with all the feeling demanded by Andris Nelsons, and the fugues
- both the loud one and its softer reprise - in the Offertorium.
The ‘Hosanna’ in the Sanctus is exultant and majestic
while the choir’s contribution to such key passages as
the Dies Irae, the Libera me and the concluding “Let us
sleep now” is thrilling and utterly committed. A special
word of praise, too, for the contingent of girls from the CBSO
Youth Chorus. They were positioned in the area of the choir
stalls - where all the performers were assembled for
the very first performance - so the audience had their backs
to them. Their singing is superb: at all times they are clear,
incisive and completely accurate. That much I could remember
from the performance. What I couldn’t know, because I
could only hear them on the night and not see them, is that
they sang everything from memory, which is a significant feat.
Every time they sing their eyes never stray away from their
conductor, Simon Halsey, and their concentration is unwavering.
Frankly, they put many adult choirs to shame in this respect.
No wonder they sound so good.
The orchestral contributions are on the same exalted level.
The main CBSO plays superbly throughout. The playing is incisive
- no mean feat in such a reverberant acoustic - and though the
quiet playing is consistently excellent it’s the sheer
unforced power of the playing - when required - that particularly
impresses. The group of orchestral principals who form the chamber
orchestra play their demanding parts with stylish virtuosity,
matching the male vocal soloists’ sensitivity.
Presiding over everything is Andris Nelsons. His direction is
hugely impressive. This score matters to him and he conducts
it with care and passion; witness, for example, how he sculpts
the Recordare. Some of his tempi are on the broad side. For
example the reprise of ‘Dies irae’ that follows
“Be slowly lifted up” is very deliberate in pace
- a notch slower, I fancy, than when the material was first
heard - and it’s punched out with defiant weight. Even
more daring is the slow speed at which he begins the Libera
me. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this taken so
broadly. At this pace the muffled drums at the start are even
more menacing and threatening than usual. Nelsons gets away
with the broad speed - just - through sheer force of musical
personality and he builds this section magnificently; the power
and intensity increase along with the speed and the climax,
when it arrives, is truly shattering. I recall that on the night
this climax was apocalyptic and the film can’t quite do
justice to what I remember experiencing - but it comes pretty
close. I wonder if one or two broad speeds were influenced by
the cathedral’s acoustic: it will be interesting to see
if Nelsons repeats these speeds when he conducts the same forces
in the work in the better acoustics of Birmingham’s Symphony
Hall on May 28 next year. He’s in total command of the
score and has all the performers on their mettle. I was completely
convinced by his riveting interpretation that night in Coventry
Cathedral and revisiting the performance on film has had the
At the end the audience paid the work and the performers the
greatest possible compliment: a profound and sustained silence.
I realised it was long at the time but now I’ve been able
to time it: a remarkable 86 seconds before the applause broke
out. That, as much as the ovation itself, is testimony to the
remarkable experience that the audience had just had.
I have one regret about this film. It’s a very fine film
of the performance; the camera work is excellent and the selection
of shots is always relevant. However, I’d hoped for more.
Coventry Cathedral is a remarkable building. It is dedicated
to peace and reconciliation and even those resistant to modern
art and architecture cannot fail to be moved by how successfully
Sir Basil Spence’s design links the new building to the
ruins of its old, bomb-destroyed predecessor. Not only is the
building itself a remarkable modern design but also it contains
within it many magnificent and provocative works of twentieth-century
art; sculptures, statues, stained glass windows and Graham Sutherland’s
mighty tapestry of Christ in Majesty. I had hoped that during
the performance the director would have interleaved some shots
of the building and its art. Not only could this have been highly
relevant to the music but, surely, of interest to the many people
who will view this film but who have never been to Coventry.
A director such as Brian Large would have done this as a matter
of course, I’m sure, but the makers of this film have
chosen to focus on the performers exclusively, apart from a
few tantalising exterior pictures at the very start and end
of the film. What we see of the cathedral’s interior is
incidental; for instance there are many engrossing shots of
Nelsons taken by a camera in front of him and in most of these
the magnificent Sutherland tapestry can be seen in the background.
As I say, it’s an excellent film of the performance but
I think a major opportunity has been missed.
It’s also disappointing that no extra filmed features
about, say, the work or the location have been included though
there is a good booklet note by Michael Foster, the author of
a recent, valuable book about War Requiem (review).
However, those are presentational cavils. They should not and
cannot detract from the importance of this release as a major
addition to the discography of War Requiem. As a performance
it is a major achievement by all concerned and deeply moving.
War Requiem is an uneven work but any issues as to its
stature are simply swept aside in the face of a performance
of such accomplishment and eloquence as this. It was a privilege
and an unforgettable experience to be in Coventry Cathedral
on 31 May 2012. This DVD is a worthy reminder of that occasion
and I’m delighted that many more people can now share
Discography & review index: Britten's