March 2005 Hanau War Requiem

War Requiem

Review of the performance of the War Requiem which appeared in the 'Hanauer Anzeiger' on Monday 21 March 2005

Hanau commemorates 1945 in a fitting manner: a performance of Britten's War Requiem under the direction of Christian Mause makes a lasting impression

Source: Jörn Pick, Hanauer Anzeiger

When, as was the case in Hanau's Congress Hall, the end of a musical performance is greeted by moments of absolute silence, then the music must have effected the audience deeply, awakening perhaps hitherto buried memories and thoughts. To achieve such an effect Britten reaches deep into his compositional repertoire (literally 'bag of tricks' RC).

The War Requiem is no bombastic work, even though it can demand up to 300 performers. For large parts of the work it is far more an expression of mourning for, and commemoration of, the countless numbers of those who died in the war. The work, written in the style of an oratorio, brings together the Latin text of the 'Missa pro Defunctis' with the poems of Wilfred Owen, who at the young age of 25 was killed at the front two weeks before the end of World War 1.

The pacifist Britten takes his audience on a ride through the entire history of music, weaving together medieval music, Gregorian chant, fugue, and references to Mozart's and Verdi's requiems, as well as his own sometimes deliberately restrained musical style, forming a whole which is difficult for the listener to grasp. No easy task for the performers either, on a stage such as that in the Congress Hall which is not conducive to ensemble singing. All the more praiseworthy then to have a performance which was fully worthy of an event commemorating the destruction of Hanau on 19 March 1945. The conductor, Christian Mause, the musical director of the Marienkirche, kept his international cast of performers, occupying the platform above him and the floor immediately beneath him, both in his sights and under his control. The main choir was composed of the 'Glas' Choir from Yaroslavl (Russia), the Exeter Festival Chorus (Great Britain) and the Hanauer Kantorei. Accompanying them was the Yaroslavl Symphony Orchestra. And that was not all. Cathedral musical director Franz-Peter Hubert conducted the Fuldau girl and boy choristers, and the soloists Natal'ya Kreslina (soprano), Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks (tenor) and Berthold Bosselmeier (bass), who was a last-minute replacement for the ill Peter Schüler, were accompanied by a chamber group of players from the Frankfurt New Philharmonic Orchestra. The scene which presented itself the combination of the three conductors with a single total ensemble was a little reminiscent of the so-called 'Venetian School' and its practice of polyphonic choral writing which had its origins in the late Renaissance period, around 1550, largely in the church of San Marco. Mause's task was always to keep in view the soloists, chamber orchestra and children's choir while at the same time directing the large orchestra and choir. In Britten's conception the three levels of 'heaven' (children's choir), the large choir and soprano soloist, and 'hell' (chamber orchestra, tenor and bass soloists) must be interwoven into a single whole. And during these two evenings we were shown once again exactly how fortunate Hanau is to possess someone such as Christian Mause.

His achievement in guiding this massive ensemble through a labyrinth of often very dissonant harmonies, embedded in constantly changing and challenging rhythmic constructions, was outstanding. All three choirs had clearly been extremely well prepared for this difficult task. This was evident from the very beginning of the work in which each voice in turn takes up the interval of the fourth, heralded by the stark tones of the bell, which is the work's tonal cornerstone. At times, during the quiet passages, the choir was 'swallowed up' by the orchestra, which did not help for an understanding of the text, but the singers were not really to blame since the acoustics of a packed Congress Hall are not particularly suitable for a work such as this. The Yaroslavl orchestra performed all its tasks brilliantly, with special praise being reserved for the brass: excitingly punchy, with excellent intonation and coordination, it moved from one high point to another, as in, for example, the opening to the 'Dies irae'. Passages such as these demanded a very high level of technical skill from the players. This was evident in the 'Benedictus' too, in which the slow and barely perceptible opening music rises gradually to a multi-layered climax of sound. The finely modulated dynamic gradation here was most impressive.

Yet another high point was the 'Lacrimosa', a song of lamentation broken throughout by the tenor (the reviewer must mean the soprano RC) and orchestrated in a manner which gives this whole section a feeling of unreality. Magical too was the choir's singing of Britten's repeated 'offering of peace', in which the desolate minor tonality suddenly resolves itself, as if from heaven, into a radiant major key.

The high quality of the large choir and orchestra was reflected in the soloists who were able to give Owen's elegiac and accusatory words the necessary weight and sensitive resonance. The soprano soloist, Natalia Kreslina, was exceptional. Bell-like in clarity, infinitely flexible in dynamic expression but without ever striving for effect, she was like a sure rock in the breaking waves. The fact that Berthold Bosselmeier was such a late replacement as bass meant that his singing occasionally lacked total conviction, but nonetheless this was a wonderful performance. The English tenor, Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks impressed with his clear declamation and natural expressiveness. The soloists were strongly supported by the twelve players from the Frankfurt New Philharmonic, seemingly able to rise to the demanding challenges of this cross-grained music with astonishing ease. The singing of the 'heavenly spheres' the young singers from Fulda made a striking contrast to the often rasping noises of battle emanating from the stage above them.

'I am the enemy you killed, my friend ..... let us sleep now'. Tenor and bass sing their duet, while the children intone the 'Requiescat in pace'. The conclusion too has a tone of reconciliation, a liturgical expression of peace for the dead who have experienced the horrors of war and who, although former enemies, have now become friends. Tenderly, seemingly soaring up into the heavenly distance, and once again brilliantly performed, the work came finally to its own peaceful conclusion. And even if this is a work which lacks memorable tunes, it nonetheless had the power to make all those present pause for a moment of silence, to reflect on our human existence. Above all, however, the audience stepped out into the cool March night in the knowledge that it is hope which is the last to die.