War Requiem at Severence Hall

Last Thursday and Saturday, September 25 and 27, at Severance Hall, the Cleveland Orchestra performed Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem as the opening concerts of the 2003/04 subscription season. The War Requiem is arguably Britten’s masterpiece, combining Wilfred Owen’s World War I anti-war poetry with the Latin words of the Requiem Mass. Just the structure of the work is astonishing: full orchestra, mixed chorus, boys’ chorus, and soprano solo representing the “establishment” of church and state; a chamber orchestra, tenor and baritone vocal soloists singing Owen’s poetry. The contrasts and juxtopositions are stark, with numerous ironies reflected in “musical puns” throughout the work. The work “blows you away.” The final “Let us sleep now” section at the end of the work is, I believe, among the greatest moments of all of western music.

I have heard War Requiem several times, including a memorable performance in the lates ’70s in Carnegie Hall, New York, with Rostropovich conducting and two of the three soloists for whom the work was written, Peter Pears, tenor, and Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano. John Shirley-Quirk, another Britten specialist, was the baritone soloist in that performance. A Chandos recording from the 1980s captured the performance of the original soprano soloist, Heather Harper. (Vishnevskaya couldn’t get out of Soviet Russia to perform the premiere.) Britten’s own recording, made in 1963, with Pears, Vishnevskaya, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the third original soloist, remains the classic performance. But this Cleveland performance was perhaps the best live performance I have heard, from its passion, integrity and fierceness.

Franz Welser-Möst conducted the performance. Melanie Diener, soprano, John Mark Ainsley, tenor, and Thomas Hampson, baritone, were the soloists. The amazing Cleveland Orchestra Chorus sounded better than they have in many years, from pianissimo whispers to the glories of “Osanna in excelsis” of the Sanctus movement. The two men were outstanding. Melanie Diener slurped her way through. She has the right kind of voice for this part–warm, but with a heroic edge that can cut through the masses of orchestral and choral sound–but she never attacked a note “right on”; she always had to feel around for the pitch before she settled.

My other beef with the performance was the “organ” accompanying the children’s chorus (who, incidentally, also sounded great from their position in the organ loft). The organist for the performance is a member of the Cleveland AGO, and I happened to run into her at an AGO event on Saturday morning. She said that she had been given an American pump-style parlor organ to play, because the score calls for a “harmonium.” In common American parlance, these parlor organs were known as “harmoniums”; however, in fact the harmonium is an instrument much more closely related to the pipe organ–it has pedal keys (not pumping pedals!), a blower, two manuals. But the sound is produced by reeds not by pipes. So what this performer was having to use was not at all the instrument that Britten had in mind. It was too soft, too distant to make an effect.

Here is the review from the Plain Dealer.

Welser-Möst and company are taking War Requiem on the road to Vienna. It was an auspicious opening to the Cleveland season.

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