07 April 2013

A War Requiem Far From Home

Last week it was The Messiah; this week it’s another major choral work written for an English audience.  Both have accumulated their fare share of performing traditions which serve more to distract than enhance the listening experience today.  With The Messiah many of those traditions are obvious (why do audiences persist in that puerile habit of interrupting the “Hallelujah Chorus” by getting to their feet during it?), but while they are generally more subtle in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem they are equally irritating.

Many English musicians are passionately proud of Britten – his more ardent admirers speak of him with a kind of sycophantic adoration which brooks no dissent – and in claiming ownership of his music, they tend to (albeit unwittingly) create barriers which those less conscious of his genius find difficult to overcome.  On top of that, with the War Requiem there has grown up a belief that the only true interpretation is that which Britten himself set down in the recording studio some 50 years ago, and few conductors seem prepared to view the work afresh.
Initial indications for the Singapore performance on Friday were not good.  There was a glutinously emotive pre-concert talk and an on-stage announcement which left us in no doubt that we were present at an event which was rather more an act of homage to Britten and his beliefs than a mere concert presentation of a musical work, while, in an attempt to ape the Britten recording, soloists were chosen from England (tenor Barry Banks), Germany (baritone Detlef Roth) and Russia (soprano Elena Zelenskaya).  To cap it all, the programme book sported a plain black cover.  This looked as if it was going to be yet another display of adulatory commemoration for a fallen hero.

Amazingly, though, as soon as the performance started, it was clear that Chinese conductor Lan Shui was in no way prepared to take Britten’s recording as his model.  Almost every element of this performance showed a freshness of approach and an individuality which transformed it from the reverential to the stimulating.  Shui took a wholly distinctive approach, passionate and driven, articulate and, at times, terse.  The transitions from full chorus and orchestra to soloists and chamber ensemble to children’s choir and electronic keyboard (and whoever labelled in the programme booklet the ghastly electronic machine Shane Thio so masterfully controlled as an “harmonium” clearly had never ever heard or seen a real harmonium) were seamlessly managed, with Lim Yau, the on-stage sub-conductor, absolutely brilliant in taking up the baton from Lan Shui and propelling his chamber ensemble along with vivid drama.  In many ways Lim Yau was the true star of the show; a lesser musician could easily have let things sag, yet not only was he utterly at one with Shui’s approach, but he also elevated it so that the soloist/chamber ensemble moments were projected as vivid mini-dramas against the broadly-sweeping soundscapes of the full chorus.
Perhaps talking of Lim’s taking up the baton from Shui is not quite right.  Amazingly, Shui did the whole performance with his right arm held rigid due to an earlier accident.  Throwing all hints of accepted conducting technique aside, he made very clear his intentions through a wildly waving, batonless, left arm, a great deal of frantic bobbing of the head and odd little kicks from a very rigid right leg.  It looked strange but, boy, did it get results.  The Singapore Symphony Orchestra was on absolutely top-notch form, playing with marvellous intensity and superb ensemble.  How much of this was down to Shui and how much down to the Leader I cannot say, but with Markus Gundermann in the Leader’s chair, I suspect he had a significant part to play in the ultimate success of this performance.  Gundermann was, in many respects, the perfect choice to be the Leader for the War Requiem.  In one man, he embodies Britten’s original plan to bring certain nationalities together.  Born in Germany and brought up in that part of the country which, throughout his youth, remained firmly under Soviet influence, Gundermann has adapted himself superbly to a “western democratic” life, speaks perfect English and is, most importantly, a divine violinist.  He was not responsible, however, for the one moment of true spine-tingling wonder from the orchestra.  That was down to the magnificent SSO brass who, in their earth-shaking fanfares in the “Dies Irae”, provided the most awesome moment in the entire performance.

Nowhere in the performing traditions of the War Requiem is Britten’s early recording more detrimental to modern-day appreciation of the work than in his choice of soloists.  Musically Heather Harper (who sang in the première in 1962) was far more appropriate than Galina Vishnevskaya (who sang on the recording), yet in selecting the statuesque Elena Zelenskaya, the Singapore performance may have accorded with Britten’s desire to have a Russian soprano, but did not do the performance itself any favours.  She was big and forthright, but lacked the clarity and openness to make any impact.  Far more rewarding were the two male soloists. I have sat through no end of performances and recordings in which various tenor and baritone soloists slavishly work to emulate the two iconic soloists of the original recording.  Tenors without number have done their damndest to imitate Peter Pears, managing the unique vocal inflections (cruelly described by a singing teacher of my youth as being “like gargling in concrete”) but none of the sublime artistry, while baritones innumerable have attempted the strangely nasal English pronunciation of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau without any hope of matching that supremely wonderful voice.  What a wonder to hear in Banks a tenor who gave clear, sincere and precise delivery of words and music; a rare chance to hear the actual pitches Britten had written delivered with unfaltering accuracy.  For his part, Roth was focused and strong with unaccented English (although occasionally mangled when the drama of the occasion seemed to get to him) and a voice which had great presence but none of the bell-like resonance of Fischer-Dieskau.  I very much admired, too, the sense of these two soloists being within the texture rather than forced out on top, and if at times their voices were overwhelmed by the instrumental forces around them surely this is just what Britten wrote (even if, convention has it, he did not achieve it in his own performances)?
Good, too, to have such a warm and beautifully polished children’s choir as that assembled by Wong Lai Foon for this performance.  Usually performances follow Britten’s lead in using just trebles and getting them to squawk and rasp in parody of the “Continental Tone” he so much admired.  Wong gave us sweetness and purity; and it was truly angelic, floating down from a high balcony in the Esplanade (which, I have to say, got the sound just about right for this performance.  From where I sat in the stalls I heard everything in fine detail, a very pleasing overall balance and, most of all, a sumptuous acoustic backcloth.  And, while I’m at it, congratulations to the excellent sur-titler who only once or twice changed the discreet slides a trifle late in the day; I don’t as a rule like sur-titles in the concert hall, but these did the job sufficiently unobtrusively not to cause too much distraction.).

The 140 voices ranged across the back of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall last week all belonged to a single choir.  Stretching across the even greater width of the Esplanade in Singapore were some 200 (excluding the 50 or so in the children’s chorus).  These were drawn from five different choirs, including members of the Shanghai Opera House Chorus, and while no choir made up of bits and pieces is ever going to have the conglomerate fusion of sound that a single entity does (in terms of attack, articulation, ensemble and overall choral tone, the Hong Kong Philharmonic were streets ahead of the Singapore team), Lim Yau had trained them to an impressive level of cohesion.  It was a horribly top-heavy chorus, men outnumbered by women over two-to-one (and vocally, if I can put it this way, by almost five-to-one), but it did a splendid job responding to Shui’s direction with great assurance.  Occasionally the sheer physical distance from one end of the choir to the other led to fuzzy ensemble, but that was a minor failing in an overall picture of glorious triumphs.
This was not a revelatory performance – Lan Shui doesn’t do revelatory – nor was it particularly inspiring – with most people on stage performing the work for the first time in their lives, there were too many moments of tension for it to break entirely free of its bonds – but it was deeply, deeply satisfying.  How nice that we can, at last, experience the music of Britten as if it was simply the work of a composer rather than the summation of a nation’s psyche.   

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