Not the least of the problems at the troubled premiere of Britten’s War Requiem, written to mark the consecration of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral after the second world war, was the cathedral itself. There was barely room for the performers in front of the altar, the chorus and orchestra could not hear each other, and the acoustic was said to be “pernicious”.
Fifty years on, it was time to make amends. On Wednesday, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus returned to Coventry for a commemorative performance of what is now regarded as one of the great works of the 20th century in the place for which it was commissioned.
Ironically, one of Britten’s lasting problems with the huge success of the War Requiem was the public spotlight it threw on him. In that respect nothing has changed and the eyes of the world again turned to Coventry for this 50th anniversary event, which was being relayed live on television to 17 countries as well as over the radio and internet.
This time round, though, lessons had been learnt. The layout was turned round 180 degrees, so that the performers had more space and the audience looked out through the cathedral’s great window to the bombed ruins of its predecessor. The standard of the CBSO and its chorus has also risen markedly since the 1960s. So far from being a shambles, this performance had been rigorously rehearsed by the conductor, Andris Nelsons.
Overall, justice was done, and yet not everything felt right. Nelsons took the Requiem so slowly that the music sometimes seemed close to disintegrating into numinous choral clouds interrupted by thundering bass drum rolls – acoustically impressive, but not very coherent. Was this to allow for the cathedral’s slow echo?
Placed among the chorus, as Britten intended, the soprano solo Erin Wall sounded warmly lyrical, rather than dominating. This left the drama focused intently at the front of the stage, where tenor Mark Padmore and baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann, English and German soloists as at the premiere, brought Wilfred Owen’s wartime poems vividly to life. And that is perhaps as it should be: their anti-war message is the heart of the War Requiem, no less relevant today than it was then.