Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem still sends a powerful message long after its first performance in 1961. The modernist masterpiece poses massive challenges of scale, challenges embraced and conveyed by the San Francisco Symphony with guest conductor Philippe Jordan, Silicon Valley’s Ragazzi Boys Chorus, soprano Jennifer Holloway, tenor Ian Bostridge, and baritone Brian Mulligan, a last-minute replacement for Iain Paterson, kept away by visa problems.
The Requiem was commissioned to mark the rebuilding of England’s Coventry Cathedral, shredded in a bombing raid in 1940 along with the rest of the city. Performed in the new cathedral built next to the ruins of the old church, Britten’s music was then, as now, a bitter cry about what the text calls “the pity of war” — aggression’s terrible impact on human lives.
The Requiem sets the Latin words of the Catholic funeral mass, deploying a big orchestra with a correspondingly large chorus and a soprano soloist. A children’s choir far away from the stage echoes with more of the Latin mass (in this case from the hallway behind the second tier of Davies Hall). In Britten’s hands, the liturgy offers some moments of consolation, as it might at a funeral, but moments of peace often are swallowed up in terrifying scenarios of apocalypse.
Britten’s masterstroke in shaping a requiem for the war-torn 20th century was to contrast the liturgical with a more personal, secular perspective. For this, he turned to the poems of Wilfred Owen, who died in World War I only a week before the armistice. Britten, a master at setting English poetry, brings out the aching gamut of emotions of a soldier in the trenches — fear, sadness, longing, and tenderness. Owen’s texts are performed by a smaller chamber orchestra playing in intimate counterpoint with the tenor and baritone soloists.
The Requiem was the single piece on the program, performed without intermission. Jordan conducted these many forces with watchful precision and control, keeping the beat secure where needed, as in the wild fugue Britten writes for the Latin text “Quam olim Abrahae promisti” (Which you [God] once promised to Abraham). The orchestra bristled with vivid percussion — bells, drums, and all manner of clacks and gongs. The brass section contributed mightily with bugle calls and trumpets of doom. As the chorus sang of Judgement Day, the orchestra muttered and lurched in powerful counterpoint to the terrified voices. The choir expertly handled Britten’s extraordinarily wide range of dynamics — from the quietest of whispers to the loudest of shrieks. Guest choral director Joshua Habermann prepared the Symphony Chorus.
Britten counterpoints God’s promise of protection in the hour of death and at the day of judgement with Owen’s poem about Abraham and Isaac, sung by the baritone and tenor soloists. Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac, and dutifully prepares to do so. In the biblical account, the order is countermanded by an angel, offering a ram instead of the boy. In a tender duet, the two soloists movingly expressed the angel’s intervention. But, Owen writes, “the old man would not so, but slew his son . . .” and the music follows with an unrelenting repetition of the gruesome consequences: “. . . and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
Brian Mulligan’s confident, rich baritone emphasized Owen’s tones of hopelessness and regret, especially in the moving final episode of the work where a dead German soldier meets his English enemy, greeting him as “my friend.” In contrast, Ian Bostridge tended to emphasize the ironies of war, his notes emptied of sentimentality and seemingly edged with pain, and swooping up and down the scale with manic glissandos. I will not soon forget Bostridge’s powerful performance of “Move him into the sun,” Owen’s pietà for a dead friend. The chamber orchestra contributed vivid soundscapes of trench warfare— the wailing of shells and the anxious drama of trench life.
Soprano Jennifer Mulligan’s powerful clarity brought a visceral excitement to the Latin liturgy — no perfunctory religiosity here! Her proclamation of Sanctus— “Holy” — burst through the clamor of percussion and bells like a ray of light across a dark battlefield.
The boys of Ragazzi Chorus were excellently prepared by their artistic director Kent Jue and sang beautifully, far removed spatially and musically from the dark imaginations and struggles of humans embroiled in war.
On opening night, when I heard the Requiem, there were a few glitches in the early sections — the orchestra not as rhythmically tight as it could be, the choir shaky on the very difficult intonations of the Kyrie. It took some time for Mulligan to find his consonants and for Bostridge to stop singing down into his score. But once the piece got fully underway, those first-night uncertainties went away.
The rest was magnificent, a complex and deeply humane indictment of aggression and military violence, still — or perhaps, increasingly — needed in these times.