Britten's anti-war 'Requiem'


There may be a time when Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" will seem unconnected with reality, a strange reflection on a strange activity. Judging by even a cursory glance at global news today, that time is still ages hence.

Although filled with specific imagery from the First World War, the "War Requiem" stands as a lament for - and a rebuke to - all forms of human self-destruction in the name of God or flag, in times past, present and to come.

Its provocative power was reaffirmed Saturday night at the Kennedy Center in a performance by the National Symphony Orchestra, two choirs and three eloquent soloists, led by Leonard Slatkin.

With its inspired interweaving of the Latin Mass for the Dead and verses by Wilfred Owen, the British poet killed one week before the 1918 Armistice, this monumental score from 1962 has an aim as deadly as the most dreaded cannon used against Owen and his comrades - the "long black arm/Great gun towering toward Heaven, about to curse."

The words and music shatter the rationale for war, and also skewers religious leaders who encourage the public to "bawl allegiance to the state."

But Britten, a committed pacifist, did not settle for a preachy statement of moral philosophy. Using Owen's extraordinary imagery, the composer holds up a mirror to everyone - those who kill, those who are killed, those who tolerate the killing. We are forced to re-examine everything we were taught about a righteous cause, a glorious battle, a heroic death. And we are forced to consider anew those ancient liturgical words about that "day of wrath . . . when creation rises again to answer to the Judge."

It is a measure of Britten's greatness that he could put so much variety of mood and coloring into a work that addresses such weighty matters and lasts about 85 minutes. It is a measure of Slatkin's talent that he was able to hold the multi-layered score together tightly and make its length seem almost short; even with pauses between the six large movements, the music flowed as if in one continual breath.

Here and there, a little more expansiveness would have been effective, but his sense of momentum and attention to detail generated an intense experience.

Tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson sounded frayed at times, but his understanding of Britten's musical language and of Owen's profound words invariably emerged. Baritone Alan Opie shaped each line thoughtfully, delivering "I am the enemy you killed, my friend" with great poignancy. Soprano Christine Goerke achieved a rare, splendid combination of intensity and sheer tonal beauty.

Robert Shafer's Washington Chorus made a rich, cohesive blend; slowly softening notes were superbly achieved. Joan Gregoryk's Children's Chorus of Washington, located high up in a balcony, sent down beautiful, welcome tones of comfort. The orchestra demonstrated considerable technical and expressive force.

At the end, after the tenor and baritone offered their ever-repeating prayer, "Let us sleep now," it was one of their earlier duets that seemed to linger in the air. It was that jaunty, distorted march, when they sang, "Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death/Sat down and eaten with him . . . We laughed, knowing better men would come/And greater wars . . ."

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