Last night I attended the first of two performances of Benjamin Britten's
War Requiem by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. Ozawa
conducted. The choirs were the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the PALS
Children's Chorus. Soloists were Christine Goerke, Ian Bostridge, and
The overall affect of the piece was moving as expected. Ozawa and
the orchestra played beautifully, and the soloists ranged from adequate
(Goerke) to extraordinary (Bostridge). The Requiem Aeternam was, somewhat
unfortunately, the high-point of the evening. Unfortunately because there
was never a return to the hushed intensity or the eerie pianissimo in the
chorus. Bostridge's solo ("What passing-bells....") was magnificent, and
the chamber orchestra comprised of BSO principles interacted perfectly (as
they did throughout the night).
The Dies Irae was well sung and played, but two severe problems hampered
my enjoyment of it. Ozawa's choice of tempo was faster than any of the
three recordings I own (Britten, Hickox, Rattle) and, while this didn't
bother me in this movement, it began to take away from the 'heft' of the
whole meaning of the text in its various returns throughout the remainder
of the piece. The brass playing in the movement was phenomenal rising from
faint to full-blown fanfares. However, the chorus did not even come close
to matching this crescendo--in the first and second verse the men and women
sang as loudly as they did in the third, causing no dynamic contrast to be
apparent from the voices at the 'Tuba mirum'. Quasthoff's solo ("Bugles
sang") started out shaky, the baritone not become characteristically rich
until the third stanza, which was deliverd with spine-tingling effect.
I've always loved Britten's ingenious repetition of the word 'resigned' and
the balancing repeat of 'shadow' in the next line, and Quasthoff subtlely
emphasized these seemingly hesitant reiterations.
The rest of the sequence was disappointing. There was an absolute lack of
tension in Goerke's solo with chorus ('Liber scriptus') and Bostridge and
Quastoff didn't seem to match each other stylistically in their duet ("Out
there..."). The Recordare again brought a too-loud chorus which ruined the
effect of the timpani entrance before Quasthoff's "Be slowly lifted up"
solo. From here to the end of the sequence, the solo singing of Bostridge
and Quasthoff was entrhalling. Quasthoff's series of cresendos leading
into the first return of the Dies Irae were magnificent. Unfortunately,
the return was again paced too quickly, and the singing of the chorus and
of Goerke in the Lacrimosa was not warm enough for my taste.
Bostridge's "Move him" was some of the best singing I've heard live. The
inflection, the pacing, and his marvelous stage presence made this perhaps
the high-point of the performance, followed by an adequate yet still not
ideal choral Amen.
The Offertorium was splendidly paced. The boys' choir in the second tier
with a chamber organ was balanced nicely, although the organists many
register changes caused some rhythmic problems, often causing the choir's
entry to sound somewhat lopsided. "So Abram rose" is the most chilling
Owen poem in the piece, and here Quastoff and Bostridge played off of each
other and combined at the angel's appearance magically. The repetitions
of "One by one" was articulated in sharp contrast to the boys' "Hostias",
which was floating ethereally above us.
Ozawa again pushed the tempo of the "Hosanna". Prior to the choral entry,
Goerke's "Sanctus" solo was nicely sung--direct and articulate, much more
appropriate for her voice-type, which doesn't have the beautiful subtletly
of Heather Harper or the controlled power of Vishnevskaya. Quastoff's
"After the blast" was touching.
The choral balance in the Agnus dei was again too loud, and, despite
beautiful singing from Bostridge, this movement lost a lot in terms of
contrast. The "Dona nobis pacem" was delivered so perfectly from Bostridge
that one wishes the performance would have ended there.
The Libera me brought a wobbly contribution from Goerke, who seemed to
loose focus from here to the end. The chorus too, while more ideally
balanced, began to sound less and less warm. Bostridge again sang
magnificently, but Quasthoff's response was dull in comparison. Bostridge
seems to have so many more colors in his voice, and this was not as
apparent elsewhere, but greatly overshadowed Quasthoff's somewhat
monochromatic delivery of "I am the enemy you killed".
"Let us sleep now" and "In paradisum" were combined nicely, but again
Ozawa pushed the tempo for some reason and didn't let everyone feel a
sense of repose in this section. The counterpoint in the orchestra was
magnificent though, and the boys' choir sang the recapitulation of the
"Requiem aeternam" beautifully. The ending was also well done by the
It's unfortunate that the only consistent component of the evening seemd
to be Bostridge, while the others seemd to have ebbs and flows that never
really aligned to produce an incredible whole section of the piece, not
to mention a coherent overall picture. Having heard the Festival chorus
several times over the last summer, I must say that I have yet to be
impressed by their singing--perhaps it has something to do with Oliver's
insistence on memorizing the score (Goerke followed suit). However, the
performance was definitely worth hearing Bostridge, James Sommerville
(principal horn) and Jacques Zoon, all of whom contributed superhuman
musicality to this great piece.
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