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Saturday, June 15, 2013 - Page updated at 12:00 p.m.

A sublime, profound ‘War Requiem’ at SSO | Classical review

By Bernard Jacobson
Special to The Seattle Times

Thinking back to many memorable concerts over the past eight years, I do not think I can recall experiencing so strong a sense of occasion as prevailed in Benaroya Hall on Thursday evening, when the Seattle Symphony presented its first performance of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” in nearly 50 years. The event, aptly prefaced by last Saturday’s fine performance of the Cantata Misericordium in St. Mark’s Cathedral by Freddie Coleman’s Seattle Choral Company, took its place among the year’s widespread celebrations of Britten’s centenary, and it made an ideal focus for the annual conference currently being held in the city by Chorus America.

How far is ambiguity, or ambivalence, a characteristic indicator of greatness in art? The unique design and content of the “War Requiem” forces that question on the listener’s attention. At least two of Britten’s operas, “The Rape of Lucretia” and “Billy Budd,” propound a decidedly Christian world-view — imposing it, moreover, on stories that you would hardly expect to provide fertile ground for Christian conclusions. Yet in what seems the more obviously devotional context of this Requiem, Christian content is presented cheek by jowl with the WWI poet Wilfred Owen’s clearly disillusioned view of ethics. It is for every listener to interpret the disjunction through personal judgment.

The work itself is an artistic statement of a scope so ambitious and a character so profound that, as the London Times critic William Mann remarked after its premiere in 1962, “every performance it is given ought to be a momentous occasion.” Such, indeed, this performance conducted by Ludovic Morlot certainly was. Indeed, it was an interpretation of such triumphant splendor as to take me right back to the overwhelming impact the work had on me when I listened on the radio to its world premiere at the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral all of 51 years ago.

Maybe stellar names like those of the work’s earliest interpreters were missing from the Seattle Symphony’s list of soloists. No matter: all three soloists on Benaroya’s stage fashioned accounts of the utmost eloquence. In commanding voice, Christine Brewer tackled the taxing solo soprano part with thrilling fearlessness, and won. Ivan Ludlow brought clear, warm tone and subtle expression to the baritone part. And in the work’s most intensely and ravishingly beautiful movement, the Agnus Dei, the only word that suffices to describe the effect of Anthony Dean Griffey’s inspired singing is “sublime.” There was, too, in his sheer relish of the text, a clarity and insight akin to the verbal acuity that Peter Pears, and in our own time Ian Bostridge, have lavished on it.

In this movement — a gentle yet pungently ironic juxtaposition of Owen with the liturgy — the delicate tone Morlot drew from chorus and orchestra provided a perfect surround for Griffey’s melting solo. Just as with the soloists, so with Joseph Crnko’s and Karen P. Thomas’ choruses; every word was clearly heard even without recourse to the printed text in the program book (which also contained far the best program note I have seen from Paul Schiavo).

With orchestral playing of such uniform brilliance and sensitivity as to render any singling out of individual contributions inappropriate, it was not surprising that a virtually sold-out house accorded the performance a fervent and unusually prolonged ovation.

Bernard Jacobson: bernardijacobson@comcast.net


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