Media Reviews

Britten's Requiem remembers the lost and deplores the cost

The Globe and Mail
Friday, November 13, 2009

Britten's War Requiem

Christine Brewer, soprano Michael Schade, tenor Russell Braun, baritone Toronto Mendelssohn Choir Toronto Children's Chorus Toronto Symphony Orchestra

At Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Wednesday

Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, though it had its first performance in Coventry Cathedral in 1961, is not really a religious work so much as a fiercely political pacifist theatre piece. It draws dark colours and bitter ironies from the Latin Mass for the Dead by weaving in the poignant verse of Wilfred Owen, the First World War soldier and poet who died in action in 1918, a week before the armistice was signed.

Britten conceived his music on two levels: a setting of the traditional Mass for solo soprano, chorus and large orchestra; and, strewn adroitly among the Mass's six large movements, settings for two male soloists and chamber orchestra of nine Owen poems. The tension between the two musical levels and the harsh light they train on one another defines the essence of this bold concept.

Britten wrote the solo roles for specific singers: Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, English tenor Peter Pears and German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The symbolism of the three nationalities was intentional, germane to the desire for peace and reconciliation that underlies this passionate declaration of Britten's hatred of war.

On Remembrance Day, when the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Toronto Children's Chorus gave a splendid performance at Roy Thomson Hall, conductor Peter Oundjian and his three soloists - U.S. soprano Christine Brewer, Canadians tenor Michael Schade and baritone Russell Braun - had to forgo even more of Britten's pan-nationalist symbolism.

Their excellence made up for any loss on this account. Brewer was superb, her clarion soprano touching the heart of the Lachrimosa's interpolations in Schade's moving account of Owen's heartbreaking poem Futility: "Move him into the sun - Gently its touch awoke him once ..." And Brewer rose also to every other occasion.

Braun, at once diffident and afire with conviction, was stunning in the poem about the lethal cannon: "Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm." And he and Schade searingly told the story of Abraham and his son Isaac, with its appalling modern twist, in which Abraham did not heed the angel, "but slew his son - And half the seed of Europe, one by one."

Schade was wonderful with the chorus in the Agnus Dei, and with Braun in the Libera Me, the ghostly parable of two soldiers, English and German, confronting each other on the blood-soaked field. "I am the enemy you killed, my friend ... Let us sleep now."

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, trained by Noel Edison, was at its responsive best the whole evening. The treble choir (Toronto Children's Chorus, conducted by Elise Bradley) was a particular treat.

And Oundjian, with a challenged and inspired TSO, its separate chamber orchestra of principals, the choir and the soloists all under his hand, made valiant, timely work of Britten's exceptional score.

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