A critical couple face off over “War Requiem” as performed by the BSO with Marin Alsop

November 17, 2013

Anne Midgette: I’ve had a couple of chances this month to weigh in on Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” a work that I admire in theory, but have never managed to love. Britten would have been 100 on Nov. 22, and the “War Requiem” — premiered in 1962 at the rededication of Coventry Cathedral — had two performances in the Washington area this month: one by the Washington Chorus on November 3rd, and one by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, some of the best work I’ve heard from the conductor, Marin Alsop, which I saw at Strathmore on Saturday night.

I can certainly appreciate the ideas behind “War Requiem,” which interleaves the text of the Latin Requiem mass with poems by Wilfried Owen about the horrors of war. Yet to me, the music remains fragmentary, even vague, in a way that other Britten scores I love do not.

Several readers have let me know how strongly they disagree with me. So does my husband, the critic, composer and consultant Greg Sandow, who has written over the years for publications from the Wall Street Journal to the Village Voice (and, before my time, The Washington Post), teaches at the Juilliard School, and blogs about the future of classical music at ArtsJournal.com. We therefore decided to present our review of Saturday’s performance as a debate between two different points of view.

Greg Sandow: I love this piece. To me it seems both profound and subversive, so deeply riven by battles and death that little consolation is possible. Britten’s music upends the Requiem Mass, turning the ancient text into an epic canvas of horror and dismay. Every Requiem has horror in it, since the “Dies irae” section describes the Last Judgment; but Britten’s version — slowly gathering force — sounds especially frightened.

Britten’s “Sanctus,” where traditionally we hear the glory of God, sounds both glorious and ghastly, as if God might not wholly be good. When the chorus sings “Pleni sunt coeli,” saying that heaven and earth are full of God’s glory, they chitter like a horde of damned souls, flying upward like bats. Elsewhere the chorus sings with great feeling, as if it longs to be consoled. But even at the end, when Britten seems to be ending his piece in radiant calm, the spell is broken by bells that sound like portents of doom.

Not much of this came across in Alsop’s performance. The bells had no presence. Hushed choral sections were gorgeous, for which I’d credit the wonderful University of Maryland Concert Choir (and its director, Edward Maclary). But Alsop made the loud music coarse, and gave nearly everything in the piece the same blunt emotional tone, thus draining the “Dies irae” and “Sanctus” of both their force and their meaning.

AM: It’s funny that I was kind of delighted by Alsop’s performance. So often I feel her struggling to force control on the music, and here I felt her energy was used to good effect, with some fresh and vivid moments that made me prick up my ears.

Certainly this was partly due to the chorus — we do agree about them! — and partly to three strong soloists. The excellent soprano Tamara Wilson made a clarion sound (though I wasn’t crazy about the fussy quality that came across in the “Libera me”). Nicholas Phan proved to be a wonderful Britten tenor with a touch of the heroic. And Ryan McKinny, whom I wasn’t so impressed by in “The Flying Dutchman” at Glimmerglass this summer, brought particular focus and poignancy to the final song.

One of my issues with the Requiem is that I find the music emotionally mushy. The poems are very moving, and the juxtaposition of the innocent children’s choir and the adult chorus has a clear symbolic force. But the musical highlights, to me, are individual phrases, or evocations of earlier Britten works — like his canticle “Abraham and Isaac” (1952), which is quoted in the “Offertorium.” While your take gives me new insight into Britten’s motivations, I still don’t find the songs to be strong in and of themselves, or that the music fully backs up the message of the texts. When McKinny sang, with quiet aching incisiveness, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” it marked perhaps the first time this passage has had the effect on me that I think it’s supposed to have.

GS: We certainly agree on the soloists, and about this passage, one of the few moments that I thought had both vivid and very specific emotion. I’d add that it also sounded bleached and distant, a crucial note to strike because the singer represents a specter speaking from beyond the grave, bringing comfort of a sort, but also a prophecy of wars that never end.

I think the songs function as interludes within the work, and thus aren’t meant to stand alone. And yet they help subvert any notion of a standard Requiem. I’m glad you mentioned the “Abraham and Isaac” section, because for me that’s where Britten most radically turns our expectations inside out.

The chorus has just sung one of the traditional sections of the Requiem Mass, the “Quam olim Abrahae,” about the “holy light” that God promised he would give to Abraham and “all his seed.” The music sounds loud and confident, and just a little empty.

And then comes the Wilfred Owen poem that starts, “So Abram rose,” in which the baritone and tenor rip the Bible tale of Abraham to shreds. In this version, Abraham, even though an angel tells him not to sacrifice his son, goes ahead and kills the boy, and, in Owen’s words, “half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

The chorus now repeats what it sang before, this time sounding hushed, and (in a more sensitive performance than Alsop’s) badly chastened. As well they might. The Requiem Mass has given scant consolation. Religion offered mercy; Britten suggests that we refused it.

What are your thoughts on “War Requiem?” Join the debate on Anne Midgette’s blog at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/classical-beat.

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