War Requiem | Adelaide Symphony OrchestraIn the context of the tragedies wrought by its horrific wars, this extraordinary work must surely be the most significant composition of the twentieth century. Even the positioning by the composer of its major elements is a master stroke in itself. The great monolithic structure of the requiem mass for the dead with soprano soloist, full chorus and full orchestra, is posed against the poignant poems of Wilfred Owen with the tenor and baritone soloists and chamber orchestra (on one side of the stage), and the more distant ethereal voices of children’s choir with organ (both unseen). Together these forces present a unified yet contrasting honouring of the dead while agonisingly lamenting the evil travesty that is war.

The profoundly moving  poetry of Wilfred Owen, himself a victim of war at the tender age of 25, provides the perfect platform for the immense creativity and superb ability of Benjamin Britten to set words to music, and to do so in a way that excruciatingly spotlights the stupidity and futility of war. One of the most memorable examples of this is how Owen has Abraham (the father of so many nations) ignoring the advice of an angel, and killing not only his son, but “half the seed of Europe one by one”. Beautifully apposite sections of the Requiem follow – truly tear-jerking stuff.

Conductor Arvo Volmer maintained masterful control of the large and diverse forces throughout this excellent performance, from the ominous opening procession of Requiem aeternam… to the superbly executed and soul-tearing final Amen. The orchestras revelled in the rich climaxes and subtle whispers Britten gives them, the brass and percussion having a field day in the Dies irae. The large choir showed great unanimity and responsiveness – especially in their pianissimos and in their precise staccatos, even if the forces of brass, tympani and all orchestral guns blazing proved occasionally too much for them. The choristers of Young Adelaide Voices were an excellent off-stage chorus, with their clarity and purity of tone, (enhanced by the work of some fine acoustic engineers).

The three soloists acquitted themselves superbly. Baritone Marcus Farnsworth has a rich, mellow voice with an impressive range, and although he does not (yet) have the Fischer-Dieskau power of the original recording, he still came though admirably.

Tenor Andrew Staples was superb. This is a young man to watch. He displayed beautiful sensitivity to the words and music, with lovely tone, and clear diction. Both were excellent – both singly and in duet. Conductor Volmer, while maintaining control, recognising their abilities, gave these men a very respectful independence, which was well rewarded. So much of the beauty is in the writing itself, but this combination brought both music and poetry exquisitely into focus.

Britten’s writing for Soprano soloist demands a big Russian-type diva, and Soprano Dina Kuznetsova rose to it initially, but was less impressive when the real pressure was on her in the Sanctus. Not only did she seem a little uncertain at times, but also her vibrato took over to the extent that it too often disguised the note that she was actually supposedly singing.

As the work moves towards its conclusion, the elements all start to come together in a symbolic unity of cooperation and peace. The reconciliation is complete as the unaccompanied choir, punctuated with a single bell, seeks rest in peace, bringing the whole to its gentle completion with a superbly logical and exquisitely resolved “amen”.

This work should be performed more often, not only because it is a magnificent marriage of music and poetry, but also because it irrepressibly stirs any listener to consider the insanity of war. May it long be a real requiem for war, such that all wars may resolve and indeed rest in Peace.  

Adelaide Symphony Orchestra presents

by Benjamin Britten

With Adelaide Festival Chorus

Venue: Adelaide Festival Theatre
Date: November 2, 2013
Tickets: $120 – $54
Bookings: 131 246 | www.bass.net.au

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