Atlanta Symphony and Chorus shine a light darkly on Britten’s “War Requiem”
Much was made this past year of the centenary of Benjamin Britten. Still more, no doubt, will be made of the hundredth anniversary of the First World War this summer.
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra found a logical and powerful convergence of the two in Britten’s War Requiem, giving a moving rendition at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night.
It was not a performance that thrilled, exactly, but that was not Britten’s purpose. The Requiem is a forceful work of nearly bottomless depth, and the ASO delved far down in their exploration. The orchestra did not display a big, velvety string sound, nor stomp and rumble in the basses. Where they excelled was in the assertive precision of their brass and percussion, which gave the orchestra a muscular intensity.
Part of the War Requiem‘s power, of course, comes from Britten’s brilliant selection of material, interpolating the works of the English World War I poet Wilfred Owen into the traditional Latin Missa pro defunctis. Just as we’re expecting the Kyrie to begin, we are hit with Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” demanding to know who will mourn for the young men dying in anonymous masses.
The Hostias and Sanctus, praying for eternal life and exulting in praise of the Lord of Hosts, are answered by “The End,” denying the promised resurrection. The struggle between these two texts grows more and more pronounced, Owen’s poems seeming to form a competing and contrary narrative of their own, until they are finally reconciled in the final line of Owen’s “Strange Meeting” sung together with the benediction of “In paradisum deducant te Angeli.”
This struggle is reflected in Britten’s music, the celestial-gazing sections of the Latin text drawing inspiration from liturgical music, while Owen’s verse is set with a searching intensity reminiscent of Britten’s operatic writing.
Robert Spano, the ASO’s music director, gave the work a nuanced reading, never overwhelming save—appropriately—in the reprise of the “Dies irae,” but always keeping in mind the direction of the piece, highlighting both the contrasts and similarities between the two texts as he drove them home to their blissful resolution.
Here the two male soloists sang in tight, gleaming harmony, particularly in their duet as Isaac and Abraham, the text taken from Owen’s “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.” The tenor Anthony Dean Griffey had to be replaced due to illness, and Thomas Cooley was a fortunate find. His voice felt a little hefty at first, and his diction was less than exemplary, but he had a clear and natural connection to the idiosyncratic wanderings of Britten’s vocal lines. He grew more and more comfortable as the evening progressed, achieving rapturous clarity and ease in his final monologue, “Strange Meeting.”
The baritone Stephen Powell sang with robust, crackling tone and brought excellent narrative instinct to the text. A clear and floating top register served him well, but it was his imposing and ominous sonority that made him a force in this performance. His powerful singing of Owen’s description of an artillery piece gave the brass and chorus room to spit fire in the “Dies irae.”
The soprano, Evelina Dobračeva, fared well enough, though she seemed out of her element in this material. She has a wide sound that fit much of her part, filled as it is with declamatory singing, but when she needed to be gentle, as in the “Lacrimosa,” she struggled to lighten her voice.
Norman Mackenzie’s ASO Chorus was in excellent form, ably and convincingly covering the wide dynamic range required of them. They maintained impeccable ensemble, even when called upon to create the turmoil of the “Sanctus,” which they did vividly.
Their limelight was nearly stolen, though, by the boys of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, under the direction of Dianne Berkun-Menaker. They poured limpid, liquid tone down from the balcony onto the audience below, staying right with Spano and maintaining nearly perfect intonation.