Left - Conductor Tadaaki Otaka
It has been over 35 years since the MSO last performed Benjamin Britten's large-scale Requiem Mass, the War Requiem. It is a challenging work, both to perform and to listen to, but a rewarding experience for being so - both sombre and sublime.
Britten was, famously, a pacifist and conscientious objector. He refused to enlist in World War II, saying his whole life had been devoted to creation and he could not therefore take part in acts of destruction. This makes his approach, to writing a Mass for the dead in memory of those who died in WWII, of considerable interest, as it eschews simpler and traditional themes of glory and patriotism for a dark ambivalence and dissonance, expertly teased out over War Requiem's 85 minutes.
Britten chose to pepper War Requiem with the poetry of Wilfred Owen, whose subject was war - specifically 'the pity of war'. Owen himself was killed in the final days of World War I, and his words hang in the air as a perpetual warning. Sung by tenor and baritone, the weight of Owen's verse, both tonal and emotional, is a counterpoint to the main chorus and solo soprano who sing the celebration of the earthly masses. Finally, an offstage choir provides an ethereal presence representing a voice from the heavens.
For five of the six movements, these three musical forces remain frustratingly separate, a purposeful device on Britten's part that denies the resolution sought by the ears. The ever-present tritone interval serves as a musical reminder of the discordant nature of triumph in war, while sudden flurries of great beauty are underscored with a deeper menace and sense of foreboding. It is not until the final movement that Britten salves our frustration by joining heaven and earth and the voice of the dead in a fierce and final appeal for eternal rest.
War Requiem is a big production for the MSO and no doubt a tense one for the performers. It demands intense concentration, careful co-ordination, great musical skill and no small amount of dignity in performance. It was clear the players were not only acutely aware of their responsibility in performing this work, but also energised by it. The recent passing of the great Australian conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, who many of those present had worked with, added an extra sense of significance.
The MSO and MSO Chorus, the National Boys' Choir and soloists Elena Zelenskaya (soprano), Timothy Robinson (tenor) and Stephan Loges (baritone) should be congratulated for their efforts, as should conductor Tadaaki Otaka for bringing it all together. It was a virtuous performance and an honour to be present for it.
The accomplished scholar and musicologist Theodor Adorno famously said that after the atrocities of World War II there could be no more poetry. (He was also no fan of Britten's, calling his compositions 'the apotheosis of meagreness'.) Let us be thankful that on both these counts at least, he was wrong.
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra presents
Conductor Tadaaki Otaka
Venue: Melbourne Town Hall
Dates/Times: 8pm, 22 - 23 July, 2010
Tickets: $56 ‐ $105
Bookings: MSO Box Office on 9929 9600 | www.mso.com.au