It was a bold idea of Jonathan Mills, director of the Edinburgh International Festival, to programme performances on the same day of two Latin mass settings composed 500 years apart. The link was war and our reaction to it – in tune with the festival’s centenary commemoration of the 1914-18 conflict. Britten’s War Requiem uses the Latin mass as the springboard for a large-scale meditation on the senselessness of conflict. Its pacifist message is explicit. The only reference to conflict in Dufay’s Missa “L’homme armé” is the title, so named because of the cheeky little 15th-century ditty that underpins its musical design. The work’s function is strictly liturgical.
To make a stronger connection between the two – Dufay at Greyfriars Kirk and, an hour later, Britten at the Usher Hall – Mills had the movements of Dufay’s mass interspersed with Six Hymns for Peace by the contemporary German composer Werner Heider, who makes the case against war as explicitly as Britten. The juxtaposition proved lopsided, with Britten easily eclipsing Dufay and Heider.
This was partly because Heider’s clichéd avant-gardism – whispering, speaking, clapping and murky harmonising – sounded crass next to Dufay’s cantus firmus, the integrity and continuity of which was unnecessarily disrupted. The two pieces have nothing in common, other than a place in the repertory of the Hilliard Ensemble, whose standard of presentation was not what one expects of such a distinguished group. Buried in their scores, the four singers sounded tired and disengaged, with countertenor David James’s problems of pitch and tone accentuated by Dufay’s unusual rhythms.
As for the Britten, this was a festival performance par excellence, matching War Requiem’s reputation as a piece that never fails to inspire. Corralled by Andrew Davis, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Edinburgh Festival Chorus and National Youth Choir of Scotland showed sensitivity and commitment. Balance was perfect – no easy matter in this spatially configured masterwork. Matthias Goerne found more meaning in the words than his tenor and soprano counterparts, Toby Spence and Albina Shagimuratova, but all three made sense. As the final “Amen” tapered into the ether, a packed Usher Hall fell into prolonged silence.