CBSO/Gardner – review

St Paul's Cathedral, London

Conflict and resolution are the underlying themes of this year's City of London festival, so in Britten's centenary year, it was almost an inevitability that his War Requiem should open the series of large-scale concerts in St Paul's Cathedral. Edward Gardner conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a performance that thrilled and moved, despite the cathedral's notoriously difficult acoustic, which has blunted the impact of many concerts in the past.

Gardner's track record both as choral conductor and Britten interpreter is impeccable, and, as might be expected, his handling of the work's complex juxtaposition of disparate elements was supremely intelligent, without losing sight of its power. Speeds were on the slow side. Formal ritual embraced and contained visceral emotion. Britten's shifting perspectives, envisioning war as a communal catastrophe that destroys the individual soul, were exposed with horrifying clarity. The orchestral sound was broodingly dark and Mahlerian, the choral singing pitch-perfect and wonderfully committed.

Sometimes the performance worked with the cathedral's echo; sometimes, inevitably, against it. The clanging bells, which seemed to resonate into infinity, sounded extraordinary, though some of the slow-moving polyphony, the Recordare in particular, vanished into a kind of aural fog. The soloists were strong and sharply differentiated. Soprano Evelina Dobraceva, replacing Albina Shagimuratova, had something of the vocal tang and implacable delivery of Galina Vishnevskaya, for whom the part was written. Toby Spence, back on tremendous form after recent illness, beautifully captured Britten's pacifist anger in the tenor solos. Russell Braun, the sorrowing, forceful baritone, was sometimes hampered by suspect intonation in his lower registers. It's a shame no texts were provided with the programme.

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Contributor

Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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