Music review: Prom 72: Britten’s War Requiem

Peter Oundjian
Peter Oundjian
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“MY SUBJECT is War, and the pity of War/The poetry is in the pity…/All a poet can do today is warn” – These words from Wilfred Owen were taken by Benjamin Britten as the epigraph for his majestic War Requiem, which was his belated musical response tothe Second World War. It was designed to celebrate the opening of Basil Spence’s new cathedral in Coventry, on the ruins of the old one which had been bombed flat in 1940, and it exploited the acoustic potential of the new building, with two orchestras, three choirs, three soloists, and an organ, all ranged at strategic points.

Royal Albert Hall, London *****

I can’t imagine a more graceful or more moving account of this majestic work than that delivered by this largely Scottish contingent: the RSNO, RSNO Chorus and Junior Chorus and the Huddersfield Choral Society. One of the astonishing things about Britten’s approach is that – apart from the children’s choir, here singing from the gallery – he keeps his army of choristers for most of the time in pianissimo mode. His orchestral effects – beautifully achieved here under Peter Oundjian’s direction – are delicately suggestive, and his deployment of the three soloists is designed to be set like jewels against the choral and instrumental background.

While Erin Wall’s soprano sailed exquisitely overhead, Russell Braun’s plangent baritone was complemented by Allan Clayton’s pure tenor bursting out like a flame. Owen’s poetry – sad, sardonic, resigned and paradoxically also celebratory – can never have been better served. The unusual length of the silence which fell after the last phrase had sounded was a tribute to the power of this performance.

MICHAEL CHURCH