In Bergen’s Grieg Hall – one is tempted to say the Hall of the Mountain King – the 2013 Bergen Festival concludes with the mournful tolling of bells. A consonant “Amen” – like a healing benediction – is the last word and with it comes perhaps a glimmer of hope. But the mood is sombre not celebratory. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, for all its theatricality, would be an unlikely choice to close a festival in any year but this – Britten 100 – but its effect on an audience has been tried and tested the world over and those who have vilified it (they still do) for being overly emotive, even manipulative, have surely been guilty of too much thinking and not enough feeling.
There was plenty of the latter in this highly charged reading from Andrew Litton – remarkably his very first of the piece – and perhaps the very tension that will have thus arisen from its technical and emotional demands gave it an extra focus and immediacy. It felt every inch a masterpiece, its willful opposition of the sacred and the secular shamelessly direct, the physical separation of the male soloists and chamber orchestra from the main forces (the former to the extreme right of the sound spectrum) achieving that aural jolt that Britten so plainly intended when Wilfred Owen’s poems repeatedly challenge and contradict the sentiments of the Latin Mass interposing a kind of reality check and even outrage at its repetitious complacency.
Perhaps the most startling of many inspirational passages in the piece comes with the Offertorium and Britten’s nasty twist on the Abraham and Isaac story. The Angel of the Lord may duly appear to Abraham with an eleventh hour alternative to his son’s sacrifice – the ubiquitous Lamb of God – but he kills him anyway… “and half the seed of Europe one by one”. Litton lent the jauntiness of Britten’s setting an unsettling jazziness and when John Mark Ainsley and Florian Boesch gave voice to father and son the underlying cynicism was inescapable. Boesch was marvelously resolute throughout (sharply allied to an excellent chamber orchestra under assistant conductor Halldis Ronning) and come his thunderous “Be slowly lifted up, thy long black arm” the open thrust of the top notes became increasingly defiant underpinned by thudding timpani but ultimately overwhelmed by the terrifying accumulation of brass back into the Dies irae.
John Mark Ainsley, too, displayed genuine empathy, effortless now in the sometimes awkward switches of register and affecting but never cloying in the unforgettable juxtaposing of the Lacrimosa and Owen’s “Move him, move him into the sun”, the former increasingly foreshortened until the Latin words sound hollow and pointless in the light of Owen’s heartbreak.
Litton’s nose for theatricality was much in evidence throughout and his relish for such explicitly pictorial passages as the Sanctus where the chorus multi-divided and ad libitum becomes a gathering, jabbering, multitude might have been still more exciting had the assembled choirs – Collegium Musicum, Bergen Philharmonic, and KorVest – delivered more collective heft at the big nodal points. The Boys’ Choir, from Bergen and Solihull, was throaty and vibrant though their constant parading in and out of the hall from their makeshift position halfway back must have been a major irritation to those members of the audience sat behind them.
No matter, the logistics of this piece are sometimes at the mercy of what is practical in each venue and what really counted here as anywhere was the sonic effect of Britten’s precisely terraced sound frescoes. Is there anything in 20th century music quite as shattering as the moment of fission at the climax of the Libera me? Litton made that count and then some, his fearless soprano Emily Magee leading the reckless dash to the abyss. Litton’s mighty ritardando (unmarked but surely more than justified) into the apocalypse of all chords seemed to carry with it the anguish of all mankind. Call it excessive, call it melodramatic, call it vulgar (pace Stravinsky on this one), no one leaves performances of War Requiem like this one indifferent – but rather stirred and humbled.