Review by David Richards
Toronto ON November 9th 2018
War Requiem with Conductor Bramwell Tovey, tenor Toby Spence and baritone Russell Braun; Photo Credit: Jag Gundu
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Amid the ominous chimes cutting through the languid sounds of lower strings and percussion, came the words of the Latin mass for the dead, “Requiem aeterna”. The unmistakable musical reference to death and destruction was palpable. As the intensity of the orchestra and voices increased to a climactic cry of pain, an angelic choir of children sang out a prayerful warning “Te decet hymnus…”
Such was the beginning of the powerful War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Toronto Children’s Chorus, over 300 performers in all, came together for a monumental production of Britten’s 1962 masterpiece of remembrance of the horrors of war. Conducted by Bramwell Tovey, it featured soloists well-prepared for their roles, each having performed it with major orchestras and choirs recently. Indeed, the vision of Britten in having Russian, German and English soloists share the same stage was brought to fruition in this performance, something Britten himself couldn’t quite accomplish for the work’s première when soprano Galina Vishnevskaya couldn’t get an exit permit from the U.S.S.R. In last night’s performance it was the Russian soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, British tenor Toby Spence, and Canadian/German baritone Russell Braun.
War Requiem with Soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya and TSO; Photo Credit: Jag Gundu
Britten composed his War Requiem for the celebration of the erection of a new Coventry Cathedral following its destruction by German bombs in WWII. He used the occasion to write what has been called one of the most important works of the twentieth century – a testament to his deeply held pacifist beliefs. Britten left England prior to the outbreak of war in 1939 in response to European tensions and returned across a dangerous mid-war Atlantic in 1942 knowing he would be subject to the draft. He applied and received conscientious objector status. Nevertheless, he was not immune to the atrocities of war. He toured prisoner of war camps in Germany with Yehudi Menuhin following the war and witnessed unimaginable suffering and carnage. The world of 1962 when he was writing the work also saw threats of more war; the Cuban missile crisis, the Berlin wall, and Vietnam were all hotspots foretelling more death.
The music of Britten owes a great deal to the tradition of great Requiems of the past: Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi and Fauré, not to mention the percussive energy of Bartok’s music and that of his mentor Frank Bridge. The huge dramatic moments combine with the reflective and jarring poetry of Wilfred Owens to make this work one in which the audience must actively participate in the process, reflecting on the words and allowing the music to reach the listener's soul with all its power.
Pavlovskaya’s clear and powerful soprano voice was brilliant. Her opening solo “Liber scriptus proferetur” shouted out the pronouncement of judgment. The “Lacrimosa” in which she combined with the choir was heartbreaking. Toby Spence was both lyrically moving and dramatically spot-on. I particularly liked his duet with baritone Russell Braun in the allegory of Abraham’s offering of Isaac. “An angel called him out of heaven…” was breathless and heavenly. Owens’ alternate ending to the Genesis story was particularly poignant as the duo was joined by the children’s chorus. Equally, Braun was both powerful and emotionally sorrowful in his solos. “After the blast…” was especially moving.
Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem: A monumental commemoration of the WWI Armistice, November 11, 1918
War Requiem with Bramwell Tovey, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Toronto Children’s Chorus and soloists; Photo Credit: Jag Gundu
The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir for its part had some exemplary moments of great drama as well as reflective singing. The a cappella singing of “Pie Jesu Domine” was riveting. “Libera me” with tenor drum and rumbles from the slow march of the bass drum began as a sorrowful lament that built to a frightening vision of judgment by fire. The Toronto Children’s Chorus, conducted by its Artistic Director Elise Bradley, sang with utmost clarity from the side balcony. Singing without scores and accompanied by the organ, it magnificently sang its prayerful and thoughtful melodies.
It took all the forces of the Toronto Symphony with magnificent playing of the chamber orchestra made up of TSO’s principal players to deliver the powerful music of Britten. The orchestra gave a thoroughly compelling performance.
In Owen’s words from the preface to his poetry which Britten used in his preface to the War Requiem, “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is to warn”. Britten and Owen challenge audiences and readers to understand the dire consequences of war and to follow the “vision of eternal peace which warring man cannot, of himself, achieve”. Could there be a stronger message to thinking and feeling people on this 100th anniversary of the Armistice of WWI?
The War Requiem will be repeated on Saturday, November 10 at 8pm at Roy Thomson Hall with a prelude performance by members of the Toronto Symphony at 6:45pm.