Fifty years on since it premiered Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ in Sir Basil Spence’s newly-consecrated Coventry Cathedral on May 30 1962, there were so many resonances of that first performance as the CBSO revisited the venue with this moving, ineffable message of reconciliation, on the exact date of its golden jubilee.
Some things were different: Wednesday’s account was conducted by the CBSO’s music director, Andris Nelsons (and what an amazing job he made of the task in this, his first-ever ‘War Requiem’), instead of a brought-in freelance; the children’s chorus was now formed by the all-girl CBSO Youth Chorus, instead of the boy choristers of half a century ago; and, most obviously, orchestra and Simon Halsey’s remarkable CBSO Chorus were now at the West end of the Cathedral, with the bombed ruins of the old Cathedral beyond. At the premiere, as the then CBSO percussionist and now ‘Birmingham Post’ reviewer Maggie Cotton perhaps reminisced during her pre-concert BBC Radio 3 interview, everything was at the altar end of the building, overlooked by Graham Sutherland’s compassionate tapestry.
Another difference was the effect of Coventry Cathedral’s notorious acoustic. It was muffling enough then, but now, since we have become used to the true, natural ambiences of venues such as Birmingham’s Symphony Hall and Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, to many listeners it has become intolerable. Flickering details of orchestral detail came through, but balances often verged on the grotesque, and the whole business of maintaining ensemble, across huge distances right down the nave (the Youth Chorus was virtually under the apse), was an extra burden upon Nelsons and Julian Wilkins (conducting the youngsters).
They solved the problem brilliantly, but at the expense of often deliberate tempi set in order for effects properly to carry through; no wonder the performance took longer than the usual 80 minutes. What has changed, though, is technology. My spies tell me that everything sounded wonderful on the live radio broadcast (as it probably did in the TV broadcast relayed to 17 European countries), as well as on the download stream which is available. Undoubtedly the forthcoming DVD and CD releases will tell the same story.
But now to the uncanny throwbacks to 50 years ago, and it all involves the soloists. Erin Wall was in striking form, her clarion soprano leaping huge intervals as the spokeswoman for suffering humanity, despite being called as a late replacement, just as was Heather Harper in 1962. Tenor Mark Padmore brought so much of the outraged urgency of Peter Pears at the premiere, and Hanno Muller-Brachmann replicated the many-timbred tones, cavernous and honeyed, of his teacher Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone at the premiere, and to whose memory this performance was dedicated (he had died only 12 days beforehand).
‘War Requiem’ is an undoubted masterpiece, whatever a few sniffy wiseacres might have to say about its allegedly “vulgar” juxtaposition of the Latin Mass for the Dead and Wilfred Owen’s First World War poetry. Any work which can draw a response such as we witnessed from hardened professional orchestral players, a chorus so dedicated to delivering clarity of text to the utmost possible, and a conductor whose magic hands elicited so much pointing of diction, even in these circumstances, and drama both universal and intimate, cannot easily be dismissed -- as the huge contemplative silence at the end confirmed.