It may be a fool’s errand to pick “favorites” in any art form, but the three composers who have anniversaries this year — Verdi, Wagner and Benjamin Britten — may be mine. To the general public, Britten, who would have been 100 this month, needs more special pleading than the other two, both born a century before him. He seems generally underappreciated, despite the fact that he knows how to write for the voice; he knows how to write for instruments; and there are a lot of stunning pieces in his oeuvre. I’ve often written about how much I love his work.
And to many people, even those who aren’t particular Britten fans, his “War Requiem” — which the Washington Chorus gave at the Kennedy Center in a strong and moving performance Sunday night — is one of his masterpieces. To me, it represents a stumbling block.
I don’t want to let personal bias pollute my account of a powerful evening. “War Requiem” is a big piece, with full orchestra and chamber orchestra (drawn heavily from the National Symphony Orchestra’s ranks), full chorus, three vocal soloists and a children’s chorus and organ (the Washington Children’s Chorus was enthroned in a balcony at the back of the hall, the singers’ voices radiating down over the audience like boisterous angels). When the piece came to its aching conclusion and Julian Wachner, the chorus’s director, put down his arms, the hall was wrapped in a sustained silence. It seemed to me less the silence of people trying to be properly rapt and more the silence of people who needed to finish digesting what they’d heard before descending to the level of applause.
Wachner is midway through a festival of all of Britten’s nonoperatic work this fall at New York’s Trinity Church, his other artistic home, so Britten at this point is home turf. Wachner led fluidly, linking all the disparate parts into a kind of homogenous whole: There was not a lot of contrast between the chamber-orchestra sections, which accompany the male vocal soloists singing poems by Wilfred Owen, and the full-orchestra sections during which the chorus and soprano sing the Latin text of the standard Requiem Mass.
The orchestra surged up around the soloists, particularly the soprano, Jessica Muirhead: The decision to cast this part with a lighter voice paid off at moments, like the “Lacrimosa,” but made some rough going for her in the “Liber scriptus.” The soprano in this piece also has a tougher job in that she represents a faceless female voice, as opposed to the precise characterizations of the Owen poems sung by the men. The baritone Christopher Burchett was perfectly capable without being incisive — in, for example, the opening of the poem in the Offertorium, “So Abram rose,” which lacked the vivid emphasis the passage seems to call for. The standout was the tenor, Vale Rideout, who joined emotional expression with intense singing. Although you might say the beautifully prepared children’s chorus was the standout, since it literally stood so far apart from the rest of the proceedings. And the Washington Chorus itself offered a warm, textured sound, dwindling to a bare hum at some of the iterations of “requiem,” grant them peace.
Wachner could have been more incisive in his conducting and helped bring out the soloists more, but what he offered was on a level that showed once again that he is a full-blown conductor who happens to conduct choruses, rather than that tricky appellation, a “choral conductor.” That he didn’t wholly convert me is no one’s fault but my own. Often, a review can serve as a way for a critic to advance her argument about a piece, but I don’t especially want to advance my feelings about “War Requiem”; I wish I liked it more than I do. It is full of beautiful moments, and I am always surprised, returning to it, to remember how well I know it. But as an experience, it always seems fragmentary, filled with bits that remind me happily of other Britten moments I love — skittering horns, children singing in headlong chant, a phrase emerging from one of the poems in the baritone’s firm voice. Personal tastes are essential to a critic’s job, but it’s unfortunate when they keep one from joining in, for example, Sunday’s enthusiastic, and deserved, applause.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will also perform “War Requiem” on Nov. 14 and 15 in Baltimore and on Nov. 16 at Strathmore.