November 12, 2002

Massed forces in convincing Berlin Britten War Requiem


Benjamin Britten
War Requiem


Philharmonischer Chor Berlin
Staats- und Domchor Berlin
UdK Orchestra & Choir
Lutz Köhler - conductor
Thomas Quasthoff - Tenor

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Massed forces in convincing Berlin Britten War Requiem

by Nancy Chapple

The huge organizational effort required to bring off Benjamin Britten's War Requiem succeeded in this impressive sold-out performance by the orchestra and choir of Berlin's renowned University of the Arts, the city's most famous boys' choir (Staats- und Domchor Berlin), and the professional Philharmonic Choir, all directed by Lutz Köhler. As the soft first theme of the Requiem aeternam is somewhat hard to grab hold of, first impressions were, rather, of the full stage: the male soloists at the front, the chamber orchestra bunched up behind them, the soprano in front of the amassed forces of the two choirs at stage back, 20 members of the boys' choir in front of the organ at the very top of the hall, lit in gentle neon blue. But from the boys' bell-like te decet hymnus entrance from on high, the music itself was so spellbinding that all hall details faded to insignificance.

The constituent elements of the complex Dies Irae meshed to form a seamless arch, from taut choir passages to the "Bugles sang" solo by the baritone to the soprano's first entrance, all the way to the goosebump-inspiring last Amen. Soprano Anna Dennis graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2001; tenor Edward Lyon is beginning his opera studies there after studying art history at Cambridge. It was a daring musical decision to program them with the experienced and well-known baritone Thomas Quasthoff. Indeed, Lyon's voice did not carry well over the chamber orchestra in the early movements, and throughout he often slid from one note to the next rather than forming clean phrases. But Dennis' vocal prowess was convincing, with maturity in her phrasing and sufficient volume as a whole. Indeed, the Lacrimosa was heavenly, from the tangible hush of the rolled chords in the piano to the dramatic soprano solo.

This rendering benefited from the no doubt greater number of rehearsals than is usual with a professional orchestra. Although the work is sometimes played with two conductors, Köhler coordinated all the stage action (the boys were led by Kai-Uwe Jirka). Details were sometimes botched - e.g. the trombone's first phrase in the Dies Irae - and it may not have been a good idea for the choir to remain seated in the Agnes Dei. But these small matters felt unimportant given the overwhelmingly convincing thrust and cohesion of the work as a whole. There was never a feeling that the combined musical forces on stage could burst a dam of unrestrainable musical energy and devolve into anarchy.

The clarity of the high voices in the well-rehearsed boys' choir stood out in the Offertorium. The moment where the angel, embodied by baritone and tenor, tries to restrain Abram from killing his son was another breath-stopper; any immaturity in Lyon's voice became unimportant when he sang together with Quasthoff. The taut dynamic build-up to the Hosanna, the high point in the Sanctus which occurs twice, worked wonderfully.

The Agnus Dei was least effectively performed. The chamber orchestra did not differentiate adequately between pianissimo and mezzoforte. Perhaps Köhler was more comfortable with the movements of greater rhythmic complexity. The tension increased inexorably through the painfully close intervals of the Libera me, and the evening was beautifully rounded off with the Requiem's subdued ending. After holding the restrained, magical mood for an improbably long time, the audience burst into applause.

(This review originally appeared at