Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem," which received a heart-stopping performance last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, may be the 20th century's answer to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. In any case, it is one of the century's supreme masterpieces, and it was treated as such by Mstislav Rostropovich, the National Symphony and an overflowing stage full of guest artists.
Technically and emotionally, the "War Requiem" and the Ninth Symphony are music on a similar exalted level. Even more significantly, Britten's work seems to sum up a key motif of our time, the yearning for peace, as powerfully as Beethoven summed up the early 19th century's aspirations to freedom and brotherhood.
Britten's Requiem differs from all others by adding a new emotion -- anger -- to the traditional sorrow and terror evoked by the thought of death. Many settings of the Requiem Mass bring hearers face-to-face with death and then try to offer supernatural consolation. Britten's work recalls this tradition but departs from it early and abruptly. The sound of church bells rings out over the angelic harmonies of a boys' choir. It is heavenly, serene. Then an angry tenor's voice breaks in: "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?" This is a Requiem with a chip on its shoulder. It does not merely sigh for peace; in some places it demands it, shouting.
The difference is based on the occasion for which the music was written: the rededication of Coventry Cathedral in England, which was reconstructed after being destroyed by Nazi bombs. This is not a random prayer for eternal rest; it is the commemoration of an atrocity -- a systematic act of calculated brutality.
In the traditional Requiem, death is an impersonal force, something that happens. The deaths commemorated in the "War Requiem" were killings and the text makes no bones about it. "I am the enemy you killed, my friend," the baritone sings to the tenor near the end of this work when it is heading toward reconciliation, all passion spent.
Then their voices walk off together into a sort of sunset, singing in harmony "Let us sleep now," over and over again while the boys' choir sings "In Paradisum deducant te angeli ..."("May the angels lead you into Paradise ... May you have eternal rest.") Musically, the harmony is complete; psychologically, there is a reconciliation, and the conclusion is brought back to an evocation of the opening prayer, "Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine ..." ("Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.")
To make his Requiem different -- to make it appropriate for its occasion -- Britten augmented his Latin text with carefully chosen English poems by Wilfred Owen, the soldier-poet who wrote some of the most powerful antiwar verse ever published in the English language, then died in combat a week before the end of World War I. The English words and music can be tender ("Move him into the sun," for example), or probing ("Shall life renew these bodies?") or righteously angry, as in an invocation to a cannon: "Reach at that arrogance which needs thy harm,/ And beat it down before its sins grow worse;/ But when thy spell is cast, complete and whole,/ May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul."
The English text reaches a culmination in a retelling of the story of Abraham's sacrifice, triggered by the Latin text's invocation of God's "promise to Abraham and his seed." The traditional story symbolizes the end of human sacrifices, when Abraham, prompted by God, substitutes a ram for his son Isaac at the last minute. But in Owen's poem, the scene is World War I, the ram symbolizes pride, and the leaders of Europe (symbolized by Abraham) will not sacrifice it; instead, they prefer to kill their offspring.
The Wilfred Owen material is sung by the tenor and baritone soloists, Robert Tear and Haakan Hagegaard -- both excellent -- in this performance. They are accompanied by a small chamber ensemble, which is directed by the NSO's Exxon/Arts Endowment conductor, Fabio Mechetti. But this is only a small segment of the total work. The Latin text is handled with great power and precision by the Choral Arts Society. The group's clarity of diction in this performance is as exemplary as its blending of tones and its emotional responsiveness to the music and words. The Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys, set apart in the first tier at stage left, have a different kind of music, evocative of heavenly calm rather than mortal turmoil, and they sang it exactly right.
Soprano soloist Galina Vishnevskaya's voice has lost just a shade of its agility and cutting edge in the quarter-century since she first sang this work, but it is still a remarkable voice and uniquely suited to the music Britten composed for it.
Mstislav Rostropovich, in charge of the performance and undoubtedly remembering the deceased friend who composed the music, led a performance of deep fervor and tightly controlled intensity.
The program opened with Britten's "Praise We Great Men," a work commissioned by the NSO and left unfinished at the composer's death. What was performed was a bit less than half of what Britten had planned, and it showed tantalizing promise rather than satisfying fulfilment. But it deserved to be heard, particularly with this giant masterpiece, as a token of mortality and a hint of what might have been. Soprano Lorna Haywood and mezzo Dolora Zajic sang small solos effectively in this work.