Britten’s pacifist requiem is a bundle of paradoxes. Here is a composer renowned for dramatising private dilemmas suddenly voicing an “act” of communal reflection. And here is a choral work expressly intended for cathedral performance that always sits uneasily in a cathedral acoustic.
No more so than St Paul’s, the City of London Festival’s venue for big choral concerts. The building is so dazzling as a piece of architecture that it overwhelms any music that is played there, especially a work, such as Britten’s, that needs reasonably sharp definition for its words and cadences to make their mark.
There was nevertheless an undeniable poignancy in this performance. The area around St Paul’s was devastated during the Blitz, and the choice of orchestra was apt, the City of Birmingham Symphony having given the War Requiem’s premiere in 1962 in the “new” Coventry Cathedral.
If this performance did not quite hit home, it was scarcely the musicians’ fault, or the conductor Edward Gardner’s. Choral and orchestral entries were as precise as they could be in this tower of reverberation. Gardner profiled the waves of sound in the “Sanctus” as dramatically as he ratcheted up the baleful intensity of the “Libera me”. The eerie quiet of the finale, summoning the spiritual emptiness of the battlefield, was equally well judged.
Britten’s queasy juxtaposition of sordid and sacred, severity and stillness, never fails to impress, but on this occasion it did so more by dint of aspiration than inspiration. The words of the choruses were lost in the boomy haze of sound, and the soloists were honest rather than charismatic. Evelina Dobračeva’s tight soprano soared steadily, Toby Spence sang his “Dona nobis pacem” with the purity of a choirboy and Russell Braun brought quiet solidity to the baritone part.
It was a performance of moments, sometimes redolent of Russian orthodox chant, sometimes of delusional, Grimes-like battle cries, and sometimes – in the boys’ choruses – of innocence, grace and light. Here was a salutary reminder, in the middle of this year’s Britten celebration, of how accurately and vividly he chronicled the existential complexities of his age.