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The Battle of Britten

New York
Carnegie Hall
10/09/2001 -  
Benjamin Britten: War Requiem
Marina Shaguch (soprano)
John Aler (tenor)
William Sharp (baritone)
Cincinnati May Festival Chorus
American Boychoir
Cincinnati Symphony
James Conlon (conductor)

No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.”

Wilfred Owen

The Vietnam experience opened the door for tolerance of extra-military views in world politics, but this entry was decidedly closed in the England of the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Benjamin Britten left his home hoping to escape the war and briefly settled in New York in 1940, participating in a fascinating communal experiment in Brooklyn Heights, living in the same house with W.H. Auden, Paul Bowles, Carson McCullers, Golo Mann and, of course, Peter Pears (Gypsy Rose Lee was also a part of this bohemian inner circle). But the war followed Britten to America and he and Auden sought refuge in the relative isolation of Santa Barbara where they fashioned the libretto for Peter Grimes. The composer spent a lifetime being shunned for his pacifism and struck back creatively in the operas Owen Wingrave and Billy Budd (which contains the most memorable coitus interruptus of the act of war in the history of literature), just as he did for his passionate defense of homosexuality in Grimes andDeath in Venice. This persecution was no mere schoolyard bullying; Britten saw his friend Michael Tippett jailed for his pacific philosophy (the two teamed up for concerts in Wormwood Scrubs) and lived before the era when conscientious objectors could be considered heroes. When he was commissioned to write a big choral work for the reopening of the bombed Coventry Cathedral, he would only do so on his own terms: the “enemy” must be considered as equally innocent and deserving of consecrated memory. Britten insisted that one of the singers be Russian (and chose, for the first recording,
Galina Vishnevskaya, the wife of his dear friend Slava Rostropovich), one English (Pears) and one German (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), a very controversial position in 1960 with the Blitzkrieg such a recent nightmare (not too long before, American composer Roy Harris was hounded by the McCarthy committee for composing a wartime piece in praise of “our Soviet allies”). Further, his choice of the poetry of Wilfred Owen, especially the section known as “Strange Meeting” insisted on treating all soldiers as victims and all violence as incestuously destructive.

To the trained eye, something appears wrong with the orchestra even before the first note of this gargantuan piece. Right in the middle of the ensemble is a motley collection of instruments separated from their section mates. A double bass emerges from the hazy confusion, a horn and some solo strings out of place. In James Conlon’s platform positioning, designed to evoke the original cathedral space within the confines of a standard concert hall, the chamber orchestra included in the score is at the very center of the sonorous action. Add to this a set of tubular bells in the rafters and a boy choir in the balcony and one experiences a quadraphonic sound the envy of any recording engineer. The War Requiem is really two distinct works of music that never quite mesh, a botched battlefield skin graft which leaves the listener scarred and uncomfortable. It is this very unease for which Britten was striving: war is not pretty and this unique setting makes us each sit up and face that inconvenient fact. The work as a whole is divided into the music (in Latin) of the huge chorus, orchestra and soprano soloist which evokes the grand medieval landscapes of battles and requiems past (especially the Berlioz) and the much more contemporary idiom of the chamber orchestra and male soloists (whose text is the English of Owen), written in an uncompromising harmonic language later employed in the Shostakovich Symphony # 14 (the multiplicity of tongues is also appropriated in this extremely dissonant and uncomfortable work of the Eastern front). The two musical streams run parallel but never touch, Britten consciously constructing a juxtaposition of ancient and modern barbarism (think of George C. Scott as General Patton looking out over the Northern African landscape of the 1940’s and seeing the advancing Carthaginian armies).

Last evening’s rendition was a fine effort and ultimately very moving if partially flawed. Certainly the main focus of the May Festival, the chorus, was superb, spewing fire and brimstone or exuding comfort as appropriate. The soloists all were expressive although disparate in their levels of volume. Mr. Conlon chose to hide Marina Shaguch at the back with the chorus, but her soprano was so powerful that we would have heard her quite distinctly even if she were on the stage of the Hard Rock Café across 57th Street. John Aler’s tenor was the most emotive and eerily similar to the voice of Peter Pears (Britten’s was only one of many ghosts in attendance this night). However, the instrumental forces sounded very thin in comparison to their vocal colleagues, the organ accompanying the boys apparently bought at the Cincinnati Walmart, and several major gaffs in the nakedly individual lines of the chamber ensemble hard to ignore. In fact, the most satisfying musical sections were all a cappella, the quiet surrounding William Sharp’s “I am the enemy you killed” the most holy of moments.

Of course, this performance, planned eighteen months ago but now rendered at a Carnegie Hall tastefully adorned in red and black crepe, was made all the more poignant as a result of the events in New York of one month ago. Much has been made of the 1968 Edinburgh concert of this work, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini (Britten himself assisted by leading the chamber orchestra), coming as it did only one week after the brutal invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets. Unfortunately, given the bestial nature of mankind over the last 5000 years, it seems certain that the War Requiem will have many opportunities to be ghastly appropriate in future.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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