Britten’s War Requiem, Leeds Town Hall,Saturday 17th November 2018

Benjamin Britten composed his War Requiem (1961-62) in a spirit of reconciliation to mark the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral. In this vast work, Britten sets movements of the Latin Mass for soprano, choir and large orchestra and he juxtaposes them with settings of Wilfred Owen’s First World War poems. These are sung in English by tenor and baritone soloists accompanied by a chamber ensemble. The resulting kaleidoscopic soundscape speaks directly to the listener.

John Pritchard conducted huge forces for the first Leeds performance of the War Requiem at the 1964 Triennial Musical Festival. On that auspicious occasion, the 300-strong Festival Chorus was joined in Leeds Town Hall by soloists Heather Harper, William McAlpine and Hans Wilbrink with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Melos chamber ensemble and boy choristers from York Minster and Leeds Parish Church.

Last Saturday’s incandescent performance, conducted by Simon Wright, was given by today’s slimmed down and fine-tuned Festival Chorus of 130 singers together with the superb City of Glasgow Chorus and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. The combined choirs of over 200 voices sang with incredible precision, warmth and clarity. Their unaccompanied Kyrie eleison was a sublime blend of lovely phrasing and well nigh perfect intonation. The spine tingling attack of the tenors and basses in the Dies Irae pinned me to my seat. Soprano Evalina Dobraceva effortlessly soared against a backdrop of gamelan chimes at the opening of Britten’s brilliant setting of the Sanctus and she conveyed a steely anguish in the exquisite Lacrimosa. Out of sight of the audience, the Cantabile Chamber Choir from Wakefield Girls High School sang with warmth and ethereal expression. My sense though, is that the composer preferred the icy tonal purity of boys voices for his War Requiem.

Tenor Joshua Ellicott and baritone Benjamin Appl’s superb articulation of the Wilfred Owen poems was underpinned by the chamber ensemble’s delicate brushstrokes of atmospheric instrumental colour. Appl’s heartrending declamation of Strange Meeting, Owen’s most powerful poem, led inexorably to the serenely beautiful epilogue in which Britten combines all of his forces with great restraint. After a hushed Amen, ten precious seconds of silence were broken by a deluge of applause for an unforgettable experience.

Geoffrey Mogridge