Britten’s war requiem speaks profoundly to us all

RSNO music director Peter Oundjian, who will conduct performances of Britten's War Requiem in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Picture: RSNO
RSNO music director Peter Oundjian, who will conduct performances of Britten's War Requiem in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Picture: RSNO
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This week’s programme by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is epic. It consists of a single 85-minute work – Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem – which, on the face of it, might seem like a challenge for the intrepid listener.

But in reality, it’s one that leaves you weeping, spent and angry for all the right reasons.

The timing is perfect – a week before what would have been Britten’s 100th birthday, therefore at the climax of a year whose centenary focus on the composer has been explorative, exhilarating and comprehensive. It’s been a great year for the War Requiem itself, with interesting new recordings coming from all angles.

But nothing can beat a pulsating live performance of a genuine masterpiece – one that began life in 1962 as a musical celebration of the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, architect Basil Spence’s “rising phoenix” that was erected in harrowing juxtaposition to the ruins of the bombed-out 14th century original.

To Britten, a war-time conscientious objector and lifelong pacifist, that architectural collision of hope and despair, of the senseless and the aspirational, must surely have struck a metaphorical nerve. And it’s surely no coincidence that the most explosive element of this work is the clash between the luminous, comfortable universality of the standard Latin Requiem text and the chilling pathos of Wilfred Owen’s poetry.

RSNO music director Peter Oundjian, who conducts this week’s performances, is equally unnerved by the War Requiem’s inner conflict. “We’re pointed quite deliberately to the juxtaposition of the two contrasting texts,” he says. “It speaks very profoundly to all of us, whether we have lost people in war, whether we were alive during the war. My own father fought in the Second World War, but even today there are conflicts impacting on families.”

It operates on the hugest of multi-layered scales – two orchestras, organ, adult chorus and children’s chorus, and three soloists – an original 1962 line-up that deliberately consisted of a Russian soprano, British tenor (Britten’s partner Peter Pears) and German baritone. Britten took every opportunity to make his point, although that’s not the case next week, when the soloists are Susan Gritton (soprano), Jeffrey Francis (tenor) and Russell Braun (baritone).

That’s a lot of jigsaw pieces to fit together. But it’s a work Oundjian knows well, and a composer whose music he first encountered in the London prep school choir Britten chose to use for the famous Decca recording of his opera, Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“I got a very strong impression from Britten that, despite being used to making music with the world’s great musicians, people like Rostropovich, he was also very interested in communicating with ordinary people, especially youngsters”, Oundjian says. “But what a thrill it was for us to go into the recording studio at Decca and find ourselves singing with Peter Pears and Owen Brannigan. I was part of the fairy band, playing the Indian Bells,” he laughingly recalls.

What intrigued Oundjian most, however, was the way he warmed to the music at such a young age. “It spoke very directly. When you’re a kid you don’t really understand the difference between tonality and polytonality. You just sing what you sing, and it makes sense to you immediately.”

Is he suggesting that the real genius of Britten’s music is the inherent simplicity underpinning its surface complexity?

“Some of Mahler’s music is, on the face of it, rather simple, and it’s true that Shostakovich and Britten have a similar kind of gift,” Oundjian argues. “Where Britten is concerned there’s an overriding majesty, magic and spirituality. With Shostakovich, the element one has to be in touch with is the extraordinary sense of suffering and deprivation. But with Britten, it’s more pure and spiritual. He carried with him an extraordinary aura which one felt when around him.”

There are few more powerfully communicative examples of Britten’s music than the War Requiem, a factor that probably comes down to his utter engagement in, and passion for, its poignant anti-war stance.

“My subject is war, and the pity of war,” he quoted from Owen on the title page of the score. It was clearly his subject, too. Britten said at the time of its premiere it was the message and not the music that mattered. Nonetheless, who would doubt the overwhelming pathos his music adds to the power of the message. Hear it and be blown away.

The RSNO and RSNO Choruses perform Britten’s War Requiem at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on 15 November and at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 16 November,