Benjamin Britten, WAR REQUIEM, Sheila Christie (soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor), Russell Braun (baritone), UBC University Singers and UBC Choral Union (Graeme Langager, director), West Point Grey Academy Chorus, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra/ Bramwell Tovey, Orpheum, November 8, 2014.

Coincident with the centenary of the start of World War I, this year’s Remembrance Day was a much bigger event than usual.  Just prior to the November 11th date, it was honoured with a performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem both by the Vancouver Symphony (under Bramwell Tovey) and the Victoria Symphony (under Tania Miller). There was also a performance by the Toronto Symphony scheduled on the 11th, and of course many other performances of Britten’s towering statement throughout the world.  Implicitly honoured as well was the composer; the centenary of his birth was just last year.

The Vancouver concert clearly brought to light that this city has had a more intimate relationship with the composer and the work than might be thought.  Vancouver in the late 1950’s had a flow of predominantly British immigrants, a number of these being musicians from London’s top orchestras who arrived to take principal positions in the symphony.  In 1964, conductor Meredith Davies joined the brigade and assumed the Music Director position, the conductor that Britten himself had chosen for the celebrated premiere of the War Requiem in the re-consecrated Coventry Cathedral in May 1962.  In the previous year, Davies had also given Vancouver the North American premiere of Britten’s opera, A Midsummer Night's Dream.   Until the conductor’s departure in 1971, Vancouver was essentially pipelined to new performances of modern British works.  The Vancouver premiere of the War Requiem took place in April 1967 under Davies’ baton, Ella Lee, Robert Tear and Donald Bell as soloists. 

The VSO’s current maestro, Bramwell Tovey, was of course only a young British lad when all of this was going on but he would have had little difficulty in inheriting the feelings involved.  He also conducted the War Requiem in his very first season with the VSO, so he is certainly no stranger to the work.  Even so, there is never any guarantee of executing the War Requiem well, since the forces are so large and unwieldy, involving a separate chamber ensemble that must be conducted for the tenor and baritone songs and a boys’ choir that is instructed to be ‘at a distance’ from the adult choir.  (In the premiere, Britten himself conducted the chamber group, Meredith Davies conducted the larger ensemble.)  The Orpheum stage is not that big, so it took some work to get everybody in position. One horn player had to sit almost under the piano, while a number of 200-strong adult choir members had no seats, having to stand alongside the others.  The boys’ choir (though here a mixed children’s choir) ended up in the corner of the first balcony, desirably remote. Sounds trying, but if one sized up Coventry Cathedral for the premiere, space limitations were even more acute.

Judging first-night efforts for an undertaking of this size are always difficult, but I think that this ended up as a very worthwhile experience, all the diverse instrumental and vocal groups more or less on the same page.  This was not a bitingly-intense performance such as the composer’s own -- flirting with true terror at points – but it was one that was quite appropriate for a ceremonial context.  A good test of this experience is that I have been thinking about the work continuously since the concert, scurrying around to find the composer’s own classic recording, and examining others from Hickox to Pappano.  Certainly, one big plus was that the more theatrical punctuations -- the strongest example of course being the opening of Dies Irae -- had discipline and power.  Moreover, the large choir from UBC was impressive here and elsewhere, having a fine resonance and considerable flexibility in expression. And, for the most part, the orchestra played well.

The opening Requiem Aeternam was moved on at a forthright pace, effective but perhaps not having all the mystery and distilled suspension that it could.  I also thought the dynamics left a little to be desired, often tending to the loud side with some balance issues.  The children’s choir was effective, though here and at points later on, I was not quite sure on their intonation.  The juxtaposition of the first of Wilfred Owen’s poems had reasonably good characterization in the hands of tenor Nicholas Phan. 

After its punishing opening attack, the long Dies Irae maintained concentration pretty well.  I thought the soloists were variable to begin with, but improved as things progressed.  Russell Braun is an especially fine and eloquent baritone but was perhaps too reserved on his first entry.  Soprano Sheila Christie has a big voice but, initially, I thought her presentation was a little too bulky and unrefined.  Later on, she seemingly had more focus and radiance.  However, the collaboration between tenor and baritone went well, both artists finding a sharper and stronger characterization. Throughout the work, I must add that I did not warm to the tenor’s occasional retreat to a soft, tender sentimentality. Somehow it struck me as not really Brittenesque.

While Bramwell Tovey’s conducting always had a definite strength and consistency, I did feel a certain ‘sameness’ in the treatment of the immediately-following sections, not fully capturing the ingenuity and variety in Britten’s construction.  Thus, some portions turned out to be a little tepid.  The Offertorium was light on mystery and spirit but I fully enjoyed the “So Abram rose” sequence for tenor and baritone.  Sheila Christie was excellent at the beginning of Sanctus but sometimes I thought Russell Braun was not as vivid as one might want.  The brass, though loud enough, might have been more brazen.  I had very few reservations about the contribution of the UBC choir, maintaining their distinction through Agnus Dei.

The closing Libera Me is fascinating, and while this reading gave us a journey slightly on the safe side, it was certainly good enough to bring the work home. The enigmatic little string interjections from the chamber ensemble were particularly well done and the singing of both Braun and Phan were exemplary.  However, I did not feel that ambiguity of the ending was fully carried through.  The feeling as we approached “Let us sleep now” seemed to be somewhat more comfortable and cinematic than it might be.  I don't think that this ending is comfortable or, for that matter, cloaked in simple emotions.

One can hardly help but be moved by any performance of the War Requiem.  Its message is universal and brings to light so much that we typically forget these days. This concert took us on a rewarding journey, and set the seal on a Remembrance Day that we will not forget.  The concert began with a strongly-projected reading of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, another work that offers its own special type of spiritual resonance.


© Geoffrey Newman 2014