Music Review: Mendelssohn Choir at its best in Britten’s haunting ‘Requiem’
Monday, November 27, 2000
By Rebecca Redshaw
Nothing could be more appropriate with the onset of the season that proclaims “Peace on Earth” than a performance of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem.”
The Mendelssohn Choir never sounded better than Saturday evening at Heinz Hall. Conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony, Robert Page tackled the difficult, emotionally moving piece with sensitivity and skill.
“War Requiem,” commissioned in 1962 for the dedication of St. Michael’s Cathedral in England, was Britten’s last choral work with full orchestra. It was also a public statement of his pacifist convictions, his denunciation of the evil of war, not of other men.
The work is unique in that it juxtaposes two very different literary sources: text from the Latin Mass for the Dead and 20th-century poetry by Wilfred Owen, a foot soldier in World War I.
Britten orchestrated the piece for full orchestra, chamber orchestra, three soloists and a boys’ choir positioned off-stage accompanied by an organ.
The Children’s Festival Chorus, under the inspired leadership of Christine Jordanoff, evoked an ethereal quality, with the haunting phrases echoing through the hall.
All three of the soloists met the demands of the music head on, making the most of their unique individual challenges.
Soprano Carolann Page sang various sections of the Mass, often with the choir. The partnership was particularly moving in the uneven-metered sections of the second movement, “Dies irae.”
Stephen Bryant, bass-baritone, sang assertively, the rich quality of his voice never overshadowing the importance of the lyrics.
Representing the voice of the poet Owen and his disillusionment with war was tenor Douglas Ahlstedt. His diction was impeccable, and he met the demands of Britten’s vocal lines without strain.
The orchestra also rose to the occasion of contrasts the work demanded. From the pulsating undercurrent of the timpani to the militant call to battle by the brass, the constant disparity of emotion was exploited by the composer and executed with precision by the musicians.
Britten created a gut-wrenching portrait of the futility of war. By weaving a myriad of complex emotions together musically, he challenges the listener to care about his fellow man.
But credit for the success of this performance must ultimately go to Robert Page. He artfully conducted the symphony and the choir of more than a hundred voices, creating a balance and blend that was truly beautiful.
Rebecca Redshaw is a free-lance writer who reviews classical music for the Post-Gazette.