A pair of performances of Benjamin Britten's 1961 War Requiem were uneasily scheduled at the San Francisco Symphony on the night before Thanksgiving and the Saturday following, and I attended the latter with some trepidation. The last time the SF Symphony had performed the massive requiem, which interweaves the Latin mass for the dead with nine Wilfred Owens poems for chorus and three soloists, it was conducted by Kurt Masur in 2002. Though Masur had recorded the work and conducted it all over the world, he didn't have a clue how to shape the music and it was sheer drudgery, so I walked out halfway. Even more daunting, the SF Symphony had given close to a perfect performance under guest conductor Donald Runnicles in January of 1995 that had me a blubbering, emotional mess from beginning to end.
The soloists for that 1995 effort were Andrea Gruber between one of her stints in rehab, along with the tenor John Aler who recorded a lot with Robert Shaw and baritone Håkan Hagegård who was most famous for his Papageno in Ingmar Bergman's film version of The Magic Flute. At last week's concerts, the soloists were Christine Brewer whose top voice sounded shredded and shouldn't be singing this music anymore, along with baritone Roderick Williams and tenor James Gilchrist above. The men's voices were lovely but except for the Abraham and Isaac duet that ends with the slaying of "half the seed of Europe, one by one," it was almost impossible to make out a word of Owens' poetry. Britten meant for the English to be understood, which is why the men are accompanied by a separate chamber orchestra for maximum transparency.
Semyon Bychkov conducted forcefully, with some of the more lyrical sections sounding unusually martial, but the playing of the orchestra(s) and singing of the large chorus was so superb that it didn't matter, and the greatness of Britten's pacifist masterwork came through loud and clear.
Like the recently deceased writer Doris Lessing above, Britten was a Child of Violence, both of them with fathers profoundly damaged by The Great War. Britten was born at the start of World War One, became a conscientious objector in World War Two, and finally a leftist observer watching the world gear up for a final, nuclear war in the 1950s and 1960s. We avoided the latter only through sheer luck, as demonstrated by historical records of Cold War near-misses that are popping out of sealed archives.
In the context of London's Aldermaston Marches for nuclear disarmament in the late 1950s/early 1960s, Britten's War Requiem proved to be a popular sensation when it debuted in 1962 at the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral. A number of commentators at the time, including Stravinsky, derided the work as fashionable antiwar posturing, but the War Requiem 50 years later is sounding timeless and will probably continue to be performed as long as the world exists.
In fact, all of Britten's music is aging well, and it is being embraced by a whole new generation who grew up performing the many works Britten wrote for children, including the ghostly Boys Chorus in the War Requiem. The young tenor Nicholas Phan has a blog where he recently wrote a beautiful appreciation of Britten on his 100th birthday, where he writes:
"I've been repeatedly told time and time again that "Britten doesn't sell." What has been gratifying about this centennial year has been watching presenters and musicians alike stop thinking to themselves "Britten doesn't sell" and actually get out there and start selling Britten. The irony, of course, is that what compels me so much about Britten's music is that it does, indeed, sell. He has the power to touch an audience in ways that few other composers are able."
The San Francisco Symphony is doing its part with these performances along with June concerts that include the opera Peter Grimes and selections from his beautiful, neglected, gamelan-influenced ballet Prince of the Pagodas. The San Francisco Opera, sadly, doesn't seem to know how to sell him, so he is being ignored, which is a loss for everyone.
The photo above is of Britten with his friend and muse, the divinely inspired Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, who died last year. He wrote the difficult, beautiful soprano role for her and she can be heard on the great, historic recording Britten conducted which surprised everybody by selling out immediately. You can still download it to this day.