It’s been 12 years since BBC National Orchestra of Wales has done the War Requiem in Cardiff. I recall this as it was my first encounter with this hugely important choral piece by Benjamin Britten. I still have the ticket for it, with no information about the orchestra nor piece on it, it just simply stated “Lest we forget”. This time round, we are faced with perhaps the most vital concert this year in our capital.
The War Requiem has seen some good outings over the last few years. Most performances would have tied in with the World War One commemorations, though Britten’s centenary of his birth back in 2013 would have attracted interest beforehand. Written for the newly opened Coventry Cathedral, the impact of this piece cannot be underestimated. Along with the film version by Derek Jarman and the first ever staging of the piece at English National Opera opening in a few days, this is the definition of a grand memorial for the war dead.
The fusion of the Latin Mass for the Dead mixed with the war poetry of Wilfred Owen remains a heady brew that makes for a moving concert experience that most work could only ever aspire to. Mark Wigglesworth’s strident first venture in conducting this piece has been such a huge success and we can only hope for more of the same in the future. An interesting variant in where the lead soprano sings from, another dynamic rarely seen in other concert work. Here Emma Bell (replacing an unwell Susan Bullock) was front and centre within the forces of the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama Chorus. Like the chorus, she only sings the Latin mass and her vocal range is an exceptional feat. She formulates ecstatic and resplendent registers as she weaves in and out of the entire piece. Bell was a last minute replacement and is also gearing up for the ENO performances, so if her stint her in Cardiff is anything to go by the London performances will prove unforgettable.
Arguably Britten’s masterpiece, the War Requiem has an emotional grip that never wains. This intensity is made tantamount with the solos and duets for tenor and baritone, here sung by a smoothly sung Allan Clayton and the earthly rich Roman Trekel. Both are equally masterful in their dramatic roles within the Owen poetry, reaching its zenith in the sublime conclusions “Let us sleep now”, a lullaby for the dead as all the forces finally come together in a unifying moment of tutti. The mass forces of the choruses easily wind the listener with their fury, regret, anguish and heartache. The Gloucester Cathedral Choristers have brief moments of wonderment in their brief stints in the Latin, again reaching a sublime plateau in the finale.
Britten’s use of harmony and orchestration is something to be marvelled at. The smaller ensemble, seen on the righthand side of the stage is proof of his love of the small scale, even in the epic work (we would also hear the same in his opera Billy Budd from the same time). The demands of the work are bread and butter for BBC NOW, who gave a stirring and grinding bombardment of the manic score, with moments of heart felt beauty. The sections which get more percussion including the piano, vibraphone and glockenspiel were filled with light, whilst the rousing brass calls usually enthralled and shocked us into bouts of despair.
By the end, I was quaking from the intensity of it all. Truly a concert that wont be forgotten in a hurry.