June 2005: Britten War Requiem

Britten: War Requiem

Exeter Cathedral, 18 June 2005

With the Hanauer Kantorei, Yaroslavl Glas Chorus, Exeter Cathedral Choristers, London Gala Orchestra, Natalie Kreslina (soprano), Neil Jenkins (tenor), Peter Schüler (Bass), conductors: Nigel Perrin & Christian Mause

 

HAUNTING

Source: David Marston, Exeter Express and Echo

"In more than a decade of attending Exeter Festival events, I find it hard to think of a concert that has had as much resonance as this.

As symbols go this must rate as one of the most stirring and powerful the city has seen.

In 2005, as Europe marks the 60th anniversary of the end of World War Two, people from major one time adversaries in that awesome conflict: England, Russia and Germany, gathered together in the once blitzed Exeter Cathedral to produce what was by any standards a memorable concert.

Britten is not the most accessible of composers and his work doesn’t lend itself to the casual listener. But this 1962 piece, stacked full of disharmony, irregular rhythms and confrontational themes won over a sell out audience in Exeter for the major opening concert in this year’s Exeter Festival.

Words from the Requiem Mass and from iconic World War One poet Wilfred Owen were performed, as intended by Britten, by an international cast. Singers from Exeter, its twin Russian city Yaroslaval and from the Russian’s twin German city of Hanauer joined together in this remarkable musical event.

This is a piece on an epic scale. This performance alone included three soloists, an international choir of more than 120 singers, Exeter Cathedral choristers, an organist and a full symphony orchestra. And the participants rose to the occasion in grand style.

Nobody in the packed audience can fail to have been moved by the sheer electricity of the event, which was only possible thanks to a 21st century battle against bureaucracy, which saw the Russian singers join the concert only at the eleventh hour.

Under joint conductors Nigel Perrin, Christopher Mause and Andrew Millington, this most sombre of pieces captivated and moved a packed crowd.

But in the essential mood of a festival, the joy came after the concert, just as the hope for a new world order came after the wars.

Late night Saturday revellers in Exeter’s Cathedral Close (and there were many), were caught by the sound of voices from Russia, Germany and England, singing in joy at a post concert party in the Cathedral grounds.

Moving, haunting and memorable."

 

Source: Barry Ferguson MA FRCO FRSCM
Shaftesbury, Dorset - 19 June 2005

"What choir would willingly spend four days travelling on a coach (and two nights sleeping on the coach) in order to perform abroad? Such dedication has been inspired by the 'Triangle of Hope' initiative to perform Benjamin Britten's War Requiem in Devon.

Last night's concert in Exeter Cathedral was an ambitious international project to mark, in the spirit of reconciliation and hope, the sixtieth anniversary of the ending of the Second World War. It was given to a packed cathedral by the Exeter Festival Chorus, the Hanauer Kantorei, the Yaroslavl Glas Choir, and the Exeter Cathedral Choristers. Opening announcements by English, German and Russian speakers gave an immediate international flavour, and the concert ended in a long and profound silence, followed by long and warm applause.

This was a performance of enormous emotional impact and of supreme confidence; brilliant and sure-footed, clearly benefiting from two previous joint performances this year in Hanau and Yaroslavl. Rarely does a taxing work have such a chance to mature and reveal its truth so vividly.

Hearing the first performance of the War Requiem on the wireless from Coventry Cathedral in 1962 was a life-changing experience for many of us. Singing Benjamin Britten's music under his baton was too, and consequently your reviewer dares to assert that the composer would have been pleased by the eloquence of this performance. For nearly two hours we were buffeted by the futility of war, seared by the pity of war. Nigel Perrin conducted his enormous forces with rare authority, sensitivity and passion: the choirs were superb in their diction, rhythm and alert response to every change of colour, nuance and pace, for example the gradual slowing down into the first 'Lacrimosa' was deeply affecting. Christian Mause was equally assured as conductor of the chamber orchestra. And what outstanding orchestral playing we heard from the London Gala Orchestra, both in the many solo sections and in the awesome sound of the full orchestra, aided by the cathedral organ: the cataclysmic G minor chord at the climax of the 'Libera Me' should overwhelm us - and did so.

Britten's specific requirement of an international line-up of soloists was respected. The Russian soprano, Natalia Kreslina, was powerfully raw and red-blooded in her opening 'Liber Scriptus', then red-eyed with grief in the sobbing 'Lacrimosa dies illa'. Has anything more dramatic been heard recently from the nave pulpit of Exeter Cathedral?

Britten's music for the tenor soloist has a special tenderness: his settings of Wilfred Owen's 'Futility' and 'At a Calvary near Ancre' were exquisitely sung by Neil Jenkins, who savours every word, every expressive possibility, sharing everything with us in a compelling intimacy. The German baritone, Peter Schüler, sang with brooding intensity as he grappled with Owen's darker texts. Often he seemed to start diffidently, as if weighed down by what he had to share with us, then warmed to his task, swaying with emotion and singing with a gloriously rich and focussed sound. The unaccompanied phrase 'I am the enemy you killed, my friend' was chilling.

Britten's ability to combine the ancient words of the Latin Requiem Mass with the poetry of Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) is masterly: the three soloists in the foreground; the chorus and orchestra in the middle; the ethereal voices of children with organ in the distance - radiantly sung by the Exeter Cathedral Boy and Girl Choristers, directed by Andrew Millington.

Exeter Cathedral seemed an ideal venue. The final section 'Let us sleep now' gradually filling the whole nave with glorious D major sounds as every performer joined in, the soprano soloist soaring effortlessly above - this section is so moving that singers have told me in the past that they find themselves choked with emotion and unable to sing. The choir's unaccompanied chorale, first heard at the end of the opening movement, returns unforgettably at the very end of the work, resolving musical tension with a hushed, radiant chord of F major, sung with great control and lovely tuning.

The City of Exeter's motto is 'Semper Fidelis' ('Always Faithful'). This performance was faithful too: faithful in spirit, and in detail, to Britten's masterpiece."

Barry Ferguson is a former Head Chorister of Exeter Cathedral, after which he spent forty years in and around cathedrals as a professional musician, including seventeen years as organist of Rochester Cathedral. He now lives in Dorset as a freelance composer, recitalist and part-time lecturer at Bristol University.