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2009.03.21 Britten War Requiem, Birmingham: Soloists, Pappano, Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra

Britten War Requiem

21 March 2009, 7.00pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Emma Bell, soprano
Ian Bostridge, tenor
Simon Keenlyside, baritone
Antonio Pappano, conductor
The Royal Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Tiffin Boys’ Choir

The War requiem is one of Britten’s most powerful works, born out of his fiercely held pacifism. Composed at the height of the Cold War, it spoke directly to a nation living under the threat of nuclear war. The work mixes powerful settings of the poems of Wilfred Owen, describing the horrors of war, with the words of the Requiem mass, and ultimately offers the hope of reconciliation. No tenor is more associated with Britten’s music at the moment than Ian Bostridge, heard here alongside the warm baritone of Simon Keenlyside and leading young soprano Emma Bell.

What the critics say

Review for www.simonkeenlyside.info

Gwyneth Davies, 25 March 2009

Two rare out of London concert performances by the Royal Opera took place last weekend in Birmingham, in the extraordinary auditorium of that city’s Symphony Hall, and it would be hard to find a more perfect setting. For the performance of the Britten War Requiem on Saturday 21 March, the Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra completely filled the extended platform, while the Chorus and soprano soloist Emma Bell were spread across the Choir seating behind the stage and the two male soloists, Ian Bostridge and Simon Keenlyside, were positioned at the front of the platform, next to conductor Antonio Pappano. The sound of these combined  musical and vocal forces resounding throughout the acoustically near-perfect spaces of this wonderful hall produced one of the most devastating concerts I have ever experienced.

The most impressive aspect of Symphony Hall is the fact that the incredible acoustics allow the audience to pick up hitherto unheard nuances of sound, that make even a well known piece sound different and fresh. Here, the faintest whisper from the Chorus spread around the hall in an effect both intimate and ghostly, whilst when singing on full power they almost pinned the audience to their seats with their volume. The Tiffin Boys Choir sang beautifully from a hidden vantage point behind the organ and could still be heard to perfection, whilst the orchestra conveyed the full power of Britten’s apocalyptic score.

It was fascinating to watch conductor Antonio Pappano and the orchestra, freed from their usual confines within the orchestra pit, taking centre stage.  They seemed liberated by this change in location, thriving on it and performing to their utmost. Pappano conducted the piece with total dedication and commitment, and with great sympathy for his singers – bringing all the benefits of his operatic conducting to the concert platform.

The settings of Wilfred Owen’s powerful poems could not have been better performed than by the two male soloists. Both in their solos and the pieces sung together, their serious and deeply committed singing produced an amazing beauty of sound. In his first solo “Bugles Sang” – an elegy for the life the soldiers had left behind in England – Simon Keenlyside sang with tender concern and scarcely veiled emotion, whilst later, in “Be slowly lifted up”, he expressed an almost palpable anger.

Ian Bostridge really came into his own in the beauty and emotional impact of his tenor solo “Move him into the Sun” and when the two singers joined together in the final devastating setting of “Strange Meeting”, Bostridge’s ethereal, other worldly tenor  blended magnificently with the  rich, warm beauty of Simon Keenlyside’s baritone to produce the moving ending –  “Let us sleep now”. Throughout the piece, Owen’s message could not have been expounded more forcefully, thanks to the passionate commitment of these two singers.

After this stunning end to the performance, the audience sat totally silent and motionless, almost suspended in time, until finally the spell was broken and ecstatic applause followed. As the conductor and performers took their bows, Bostridge and Keenlyside shook hands with each other in an understated, rather soldierly fashion, and Bostridge generously offered a “bravo” to his fellow singer.  Several minutes of tumultuous audience applause followed – a tremendous and well deserved reception for a devastating performance of this masterpiece.

Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post, 23 March 2009 [extracts]

Making a rare foray away from its Covent Garden home, the Royal Opera found itself last weekend blinking in the sunlight of one of the world’s greatest concert-halls, and rewarded its Birmingham hosts with heart-piercing performances of two of the most dramatic Requiems in the repertoire.

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, liberated from its habitual pit and therefore actually able to engage with a 2200-strong full house, delivered Verdi’s score with crackling definition, yet also mellifluously organ-like in woodwind choir passages (a fabulous bassoon quartet).

Renato Balsadonna’s enlarged Royal Opera Chorus relished the purely musical values of their contributions, now dancingly light, now impressively sonorous.

Unfortunately this expert band of singers, for all its additional members, seemed underpowered in Saturday’s presentation of Britten’s War Requiem. What they achieved was indeed superb, but what was needed here was a sense of cataclysm against which the chamber-scored Wilfred Owen poetry could rail at the futility of it all.

This is a multi-layered work. Up aloft, a children’s choir (here the excellent Tiffin Boys’ Choir) carols beatifically, on the middle ground the chorus delivers the Latin liturgy alongside a soprano priestess (Emma Bell powerful, but more biting incisiveness was needed).

And on ground-level tenor and baritone (Ian Bostridge phrasing so intelligently, Simon Keenlyside cutting yet compassionate) were accompanied by an acutely alert chamber ensemble, regrettably tucked into a corner of the stage when there were empty choir-stall areas where they could have been accommodated.

The main orchestra was magnificent. I have noted before how much opera orchestras relish the exposure of a concert stage, and this was no exception.

Symphony Hall, the bonus extra performer, played its part too, allowing wonderful acoustic space for both composers’ spatial imaginations. Pity, though, about the cramped Britten chamber-players.

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