Wor Requiem

Firstly, an explanation to non-Geordies or those unaffiliated therewith: ‘wor’ means ‘our’.

Secondly, an explanation to everyone: the above is the title for this piece because I will be writing about our (by which I mean the many variations on a theme of me, and my accomplice) thoughts about this evening’s performance of Britten’s War Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall, and yes, also because it is aurally the same and I didn’t have any punnier ideas. 

I’ve been fascinated by Britten’s War Requiem since I first studied it about six months ago- from the mocking, warped bugle calls that sounded to me like barbed wire must feel to the eerie unisons that break into strange dissonances then harmonies prompting questions of unity and autonomy. The construction of the whole work on the polarities of the tritone, taking the octave, the most natural musical phenomenon in terms of physics and ripping it in two forming the ‘devil’s’ interval to me bespeaks the atrocity and unnaturalness of war I reckon Britten was trying to convey. I wore my white ‘peace’ poppy to the concert and was slightly dismayed that red poppies were being flogged at the RAH, particularly given the recent appeal campaign featuring the children in ‘future soldier’ t-shirts (a quick google will quickly bring you up to speed if this news hasn’t yet reached you). ‘Authenticity’ and ‘composer’s intentions’ are pretty hard to gauge and pretty massive issues to engage with but I’m fairly sure that Britten would not be impressed by the association of his piece with this campaign. There are signs of this both in his own writing and speech and in ‘the music itself’, which to my mind thoroughly mocks celebratory, ‘glorious’ music and traditions surrounding war, from triumphant military band music to the deification of the sacred requiem text. Anyway, I shall set this matter aside.

Writing this review is a risk on multiple levels, primarily because there is a recording available from BBC Radio 3, secondly because I’m sure there will be many reviews of this concert to compare mine with and thirdly because I’m no expert and these are just my silly little thoughts (see title explanation, or keep reading, because you’ve already read it or aren’t actually interested). 

One important thing to note is that I was sitting in the ‘circle’ on the right hand side above the stage. this possibly should not matter as much as it does, but unfortunately the acoustics weren’t amazing and owing to this positioning I lost the majority of the male soloists lines. I could generally hear the notes but very few of the words, even though I am very familiar with them. Although this was pretty disappointing I did gain a new appreciation for the choral passages. After I stopped trying to strain to hear the tenor and baritone I decided to regard them more as a compliment to the chamber orchestra. I love the writing for the chamber orchestra and really enjoyed this performance. Despite the miniature forces, the music was as aggressive and biting as it needed to be at the relevant points. I almost wondered at one point that since the balance of the instruments seemed to be so ‘right’ whether it would almost be worth mic-ing the soloists. I can imagine there would be a snooty response to this, but to be honest if the instrumentalists are playing at the right volumes, the acoustic’s not good enough and people just can’t hear, maybe it would be worth it. Or maybe I need to get my hearing tested.

This did effect one particular aspect of the War Requiem that I had been excited about hearing live which was simply being overwhelmed by music from various directions. I think the War Requiem has a really interesting physicality owing to the different ensembles used and I suppose the placement of the boys’ choir and harmonium in the ceiling (perhaps not the technical term, but don’t worry it all look Health & Safety assured; do NOT insert lewd Britten joke ad lib.) had an effect where we were sat but everthing else just sounded… far away! Fortunately though, the points at which the music reaches its most massive dynamic and textural peaks and sort of cuts through your soul functioned fine, and the Libera Me did not leave me feeling short-changed. On that note, the soprano soloist, Sabina Cvilak, was stunning. I am often quite critical of female singers, but I can’t really complain here. The use of vibrato and equally importantly NOT vibrato was excellent. It was a powerful performance both technically and emotionally.

One issue that I know I’m not wrong to complain about because my delightful and intelligent accomplice independently verified my criticisms- the entrances of the sopranos and altos in the Dies Irae. Oh dear. They got better, but they did not at all start of well, particularly in direct comparison with the crisp, percussive tenors and basses preceding them. This slightly shattered me but my more astute accomplice retained attention and said that she thinks the responsibility for this may lie with the conductor, Seymon Bychkov. I’m sure he’s a great guy but at this point it appears he was using the circular whisking motion, not really allowing for precise plosives from a pretty large chorus. I’ll let it go, but it was a shame to let such an excellent moment go to pot. 

I feel like I definitely need to follow the above with a positive à la ‘shit sandwich’. Well I loved the percussionist for the chamber orchestra. He was excellent. I don’t know to what extent he was responsible for how perfect the part sounded but he definitely deserves commendation. I’ve already said the chamber orchestra in general were great, but I might as well reiterate that. In general the chamber orchestra were great. In fact I definitely need to make it up to the chorus. The opening was simply spectacular. Haunting, magical and quite tingly. The singers had a massive role in this, but it would be unfair not to commend my computer, whose speakers are so naff I’d never heard the hushed utterances that open the work before today.

I think I’ll stop writing now. I hope I’ve conveyed what I wanted to, which would be a great achievement considering I’m not sure what exactly that was/is. Also considering the fact that I’ve typed much of this wearing socks on my hands because they are so cold. I bemoaned the holiness of my gloves the other day and they took it personally and have now hidden themselves from me. It was never supposed to be this way. I might as well end with this short but sad anecdote as I don’t know really how you’re supposed to conclude reviews. It’s not like anyone can now book tickets to see/hear the performance and if anyone has read this as a precursor to listening to the radio recording then they’ll probably have quite a different experience as the physical aspects of the performance are annulled and allegedly the broadcast was crystal clear and perfectly balanced. So I suppose I’ll end with wishing you well and hoping that you enjoyed the above assorted ramblings.

 

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