“Catharsis” is the wrong word: Britten’s War Requiem

Jenna Simeonov, Schmopera

There was a moment of particular vitriol in Bramwell Tovey’s brief remarks before giving the Toronto Symphony Orchestra its downbeat for Britten’s arresting War Requiem. He said, “When the sun goes down, and when the sun comes up – and in the rain – we shall remember.” It was a pointed, verbal bite directed at a US President who, 100 years after the official end of WWI, was too small and weak to pay an in-person visit to an American military cemetary outside Paris; he cited rain as his excuse, which is in horrific taste even as it is thinly-veiled code for pouting and narcissism.

There was bile on Tovey’s tongue that rang into Roy Thomson Hall, and its effect lingered long enough to dovetail into the first bars of the War Requiem. I have always found something magnetic and charismatic about Tovey, and as silly as it may sound, to hear him indulge in a brief moment of personal feelings about the meaning of war and commemoration felt akin to hearing a friend’s firsthand experience with tragedy.

For as long as I can recall, the ceremonies that come with November 11 have evoked, above all, guilt. And obtuse guilt – not the immediacy of survivor’s guilt, or even over failed empathy of a friend or family who lived through a World War. It was always clear to me the importance and humanity in remembering; yet my own connection to war is distant, and it keeps at arm’s length the meaning of symbols like silence and poppies. I suppose it’s nearly impossible to actually understand war without having lived it, and the more removed one is from that reality, the more one relies on small pieces of understanding. Pieces like the fleeting moment of emotion from Tovey – a man who, born in England in 1953, has more connection than me to WWI.

The TSO’s performance of Britten’s War Requiem was excellent, and rooted in respect well before the first notes were played. Nodding to the three soloists whom Britten envisioned for the 1962 premiere of his work, Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and English tenor Peter Pears, the TSO mirrored the gesture of global reconciliation with their line-up of singers: Russian soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, German-Canadian baritone Russell Braun, and English tenor Toby Spence.

Read the full review on the Schmopera blog.