It could be considered strange to hear a work that describes and denounces the horrors of war just before Christmas Eve and Christmas, two dates in which the word "peace" becomes omnipresent. It may be strange, and even disturbing, but it is very pertinent. Benjamin Britten, the author of War Requiem, was a convinced pacifist who refused to take a gun in the Second World War (he had been born a few months before the beginning of the First), declaring himself a conscientious objector with an irrefutable reasoning: "Since I believe that in every person the spirit is encouraged of God, I can not destroy, and I feel that my obligation is to avoid helping to destroy human lives to the best of my ability, however strong my disagreement with a person's actions or ideas may be. All my life has been dedicated to acts of creation (my profession is that of a composer) and I can not participate in acts of destruction. " He dedicated his Requiem of War three friends who had died in combat and a fourth, Piers Dunkerley, who survived the war, but who would end up committing suicide in 1959: in the eyes of Britten, one more victim of the unreason that he had been forced to live years ago. And when we reach the end of the score, his conclusion is dated in Aldeburgh on December 20, 1961. The National Orchestra and Choir of Spain have taken it to their stands, therefore, and probably without knowing it, in full anniversary.
Britten conceived the War Requiem not just as a deep anti-war allegation, but as a deep reflection on the horrors that accompany any war: a mass so that the dead rest eternally and meditate calmly on the living. The British found an intermediate way between respecting the text consecrated by the tradition of the Catholic mass of the dead (such as Zelenka, Mozart, Verdi and many others) and departing completely from it with the choice of completely different biblical passages (as Brahms did in A German requiem). And his solution transcended the sacred sphere and introduced a decidedly profane element, as he interspersed several sections of the secular Latin text with up to nine poems by Wilfred Owen, a compatriot who died a few days before the armistice that ended the First World War. The youthful enthusiasm with which he initially fought Owen then moved into disappointment and satiety at what he called "the old lie." There are no just or justifiable wars.
Franz Schubert: Symphony no. 7 Benjamin Britten, War Requiem. Ricarda Merbeth, Ian Bostridge and Matthias Goerne. National Orchestra and Choir of Spain. Choir of the Royal Monastery of El Escorial. Dir .: Juanjo Mena. National Auditorium, December 23.
Britten admired his homoerotic verses, unbelieving, overflowing with mortuary images, almost all born in the trenches. And the contrast between Latin and English, between past and present, between the great orchestra and chorus that the traditional text and the minimal chamber orchestra accompany tenor and baritone when they sing Owen's poems, is what that distinguishes and individualizes War Requiem in front of other masses of the deceased. Bernd Alois Zimmermann, who would end up taking his own life, took the example of Britten even further, by living together in his Requiem for a young poet the Latin texts with those of suicidal writers like Vladímir Mayakovski, Konrad Bayer and Sergei Yesenin. Poetry and death were always natural allies.
To the vocal soloists, the two orchestras and the choir, Britten still adds a small children's choir (one of his weaknesses), which he makes to sing with the accompaniment of a small organ or harmonium, and that he decided to place himself with success at the top of the amphitheater, very close to the public. From there they ask Christ to release the souls of the faithful "from the pains of hell, from the deep lake and from the lion's mouth, so that they will not be devoured by hell or fall into darkness". Near the end of the work, as if they were cherubs, they pray that the angels will lead the deceased to Paradise. As tenor Ian Bostridge has written, "adult concerns expressed with childlike innocence: a powerful procedure."
And it is fair to quote Bostridge (a well-known intellectual, as well as a great singer), because he was probably the best creator of the version of War Requiem that could have been heard in the National Auditorium on Sunday morning. With his eternally youthful appearance, his unmistakable Oxbridge air, and despite appearing absorbed in his musings when he did not have to sing, every time he got up and gave life to Owen's poems the emotional temperature of the interpretation and his Brittenian credentials rose several times. whole. It is true that, of the dozens of people gathered on stage, he was by far the longest britteniano, who has interpreted the work more often, who knows better and who has most thought about it (he has flirted, or maybe he is still flirting, with the idea of writing a book that collects his thoughts, and according to the one he has written about Winterreise of Schubert, about to be published in Spanish, there is much to be expected from him). But Bostridge marked an interpretive way (which, to simplify, could be described as poetic and, above all, spiritual) and showed a diction that others did not always want to or could follow or imitate.
He did, although only at the end, Matthias Goerne, often sitting in his chair and turning his back to the choir and orchestra when he did not sing, apparently involved in what others were doing, but then much less convincing when also to him he had to relive Owen's poems with the music imagined by Britten. However, when it arrived Strange meeting, the poem that tells the spectral encounter under the ground of a British soldier and a dead German soldier (victim and executioner), Goerne finally rose to the heights that you can always expect from an artist of his stature, even though he is far away of your best vocal moment. It is as if he had been reserving until then, until the expressive, musical and poetic climax of the work, to give the best of himself. Ricarda Merbeth, on the other hand, from the other side of the stage, was not very successful in her solos, plenty of vibrato, lacking clarity in diction and, what is worse, flat and inexpressive.
As happened at the premiere of 1962, in which Meredith Davies directed the symphony orchestra and choir, while Britten took over the Melos Ensemble (which accompanied the interventions of Peter Pears and Dietrich Ficher-Dieskau, there is nothing), also now we have had the presence of two directors, unlike when Pablo Heras-Casado preferred to assume both roles three years ago at the Teatro Real. And a good part of the best moments came from the small camera group, commanded, always with success and clear gesture, by the veteran José Ramón Encinar. Next to him were Ian Bostridge and Matthias Goerne, but also a handful of excellent instrumentalists, and especially a magnificent string quintet, with honorable mention for the bassist Antonio García Araque. Neither the orchestra nor the choir scored at the same height, except for very high-level interventions by the trumpeter Manuel Blanco. Juanjo Mena arranged everything with care and -probably with many fewer rehearsals than those required by a work as complex as this one- he managed to make all the pieces fit together without frustration or misalignment. But he planned at all times about the version an uncomfortable emotional asepsis, a bad traveling companion of a score so visceral, so felt, so impregnated with blood, effort, sweat and tears like this.
The concert had begun in the first part with an interpretation of the Symphony no. 7 of Schubert in this same line: ordered, unpersonal, more attentive to the melodic beauty than to the harmonic underground currents. But what could have been overlooked there as a balanced and contained classicism, far from any excess, in Britten cost much more accept it as the best way to convey the arsenal of emotion that treasures this work caught between three wars: the two world and the Cold War that was fought when the War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral. Even so, the Set me free final is a stirrer of feelings so irresistibly effective, with the two dead soldiers singing "Now we are going to sleep" and the children's chorus begging the Lord to grant them "eternal rest and that the light perpetuates enlighten them" in their "deep tunnel" and gray, "that the applause raged with alacrity (excessive on the part of some spectators incapable of grasping the meaning of Mena's still-raised arms) and generosity. With this concert practically ends the musical year in Madrid: let's rest in peace.