Atmosphere Defeated: Britten's War Requiem at Royal Albert Hall

War Requiem | Benjamin Britten
Soprano | Sabina Cvilak
Tenor | Allan Clayton (In for the indisposed Andrew Kennedy)
Baritone | Roderick Williams

Conductor | Semyon Bychkov
Off-Stage Conductor | James O'Donnell
BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Crouch End Festival Chorus
Choristers of Westminster Abbey


My first exposure to Britten's War Requiem was last spring when Lawrence University's orchestra and choirs mounted a concert for the piece with professional soloists. That experience was particularly moving for me. We put a lot of work into that piece both musically and emotionally, and the result was stunning. Especially touching was the conductor's pause for 30 seconds at the end of the piece in silence. I preface this review with this for two reasons. One, it was wonderful to be able to finally see War Requiem as an audience member, and two, I'm almost certainly biased by my one monolithic performance experience with the piece.
Semyon Bychkov  assisted by James O'Donnell, was undoubtedly engaged in the performance. His conducting was decisive and with clear motivation. That said, I personally did not agree with many of the choices regarding tempi and dynamics. As I mentioned, I am probably biased in this regard, but I felt like often the choices either did not go far enough or were in the wrong direction. War Requiem is a work of extremes and pushing those as far as they can go is essential. Still, the BBC Symphony Orchestra responded superbly to Bychkov's baton, dutifully carrying out his direction in the context of a challenging piece of music. While the orchestra was impressive, the choirs, joint forces of the BBC Symphony Chorus and the Crouch End Festival Chorus were the most notable performers of the night. While the conducting and the orchestra were good but lacked the vitality the piece could command, the singers seemed more possessing of that focus. On this choral side, often the boy choir is neglected as almost an afterthought, despite its essential role as a counterpoint to the rest of the work. With the Choristers of Westminster Abbey involved, however, even they were superbly suited to the work and brought great focus and insight.
Sabina Cvilak's soprano voice was fitting to the work in timbre but was impeded by both a lack of staying power and also a seeming lack of engagement. She did sound wonderful throughout the evening but in the most taxing parts of the piece she was completely inaudible and seemed a bit strained. This is often an issue with the War Requiem and there are parts where the soprano may be appropriately drowned out. The issue extended beyond these, however. (Notably, these could also have been balance issues with the orchestra and choir, who are not absolved in the matter.) The more troubling aspect was a sense that Cvilak was singing and just letting the music go. As an oratorio performance it would be inappropriate to have a great deal of emoting, of course, but Cvilak felt somewhat distant.
Tenor Allan Clayton (left) and baritone Roderick Williams (above) gave performances similar to that of Cvilak. There were fewer, though still a handful of, balance issues here, though fewer opportunities for them as well. Both Clayton and Williams have silky, silvery voices with the sort of lustrous ease and clear diction that War Requiem demands. It was a pleasure to hear them sing. Once again, however, there was a sense that they were often a bit detached from the performance. As the soldiers realizing slowly that they fought and died, one killing the other, on the same battlefield, was undermined by this sometimes-detachment from the performance. Hence, while there was great singing all around by the soloists and even more reliable singing form the chorus, failure to push the envelope interpretively by all three soloists and the conductor held this performance back from its full potential, even on the great occasion of Remembrance Day Sunday, from the raw emotional force it is capable of evoking.

Again, I may be biased by my own experience with the piece, which came off as both a great performance and also a superb atmosphere. But the performers may not be entirely to blame in this situation. The audience seemed shifty throughout the performance, coughing very excessively between movements and completely breaking the mood. While they were respectful at the end of the reverence the piece requires, the whole evening just didn't ring with the right communal power. My experience with such long silence as a conductor held the baton high at the end was unusual, but the combination of detached performance and a restive audience really held back what could have been a heart-wrenching evening because truly, on many levels the musical performances were superb.


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