December 13, 2003

Ian Bostridge and the Atlanta Chorus shine in Britten's War Requiem

Successful collaboration between German and American musicians


Benjamin Britten
War Requiem


Berliner Philharmoniker
Donald Runnicles - conductor

Elena Prokina - soprano
Ian Bostridge - tenor
Christian Gerhaher - baritone

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus
Norman MacKenzie - rehearsal cunductor

Tölzer Knabenchor
Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden - rehearsal cunductor

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Ian Bostridge and the Atlanta Chorus shine in Britten's War Requiem

Successful collaboration between German and American musicians

by Nancy Chapple

The first impression: what a hushed, highly enunciated War Requiem - and the final one: what a wonderful choir. In between, there was an hour and a half of beautiful music making under the baton of the impressive, physically active Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles.

Ian Bostrige

To start with, a tangible tritone in the choir - c and f # - a tension that doesn't lead to resolution, but was simply sustained, the boys' choir from on high, pure and sweet, and then the amazing Ian Bostridge's first entrance. This tenor seizes the music, makes it his very own. Tall and very gaunt, his stage presence is reminiscent of Ichabod Crane. He sings out of one side of his face - and the more power to him: he has found his own personal way to emit the most beautiful and riveting sounds imaginable.

The orchestra came into its own with the brass in Dies Irae, first spread across the stage, then together. "Tuba mirum" was hair-raisingly intense. Christian Gerhaher's first notes were impressive, with convincing decrescendi upwards on "Bugles sang". But it was perhaps his misfortune to appear as soloist together with Bostridge: though also expressive and involved in his role, he was less present and less mesmerizing, and his English pronunciation was less than perfect. When the choir split into two soprano and two alto parts, the polyphony was tremendously rich, while the intervals remained clear. With bare shoulders in front of the amassed choir, Elena Prokina evinced physical presence. Most impressive, of course, was her musical entrance: a pianissimo "Lacrimosa" that carried through the hall, rhythmically interspersed with the choir's line. In soft passages in the choir, such as the "Pie Jesu" and the eerie "Amen" at the movement's end, the group's perfect control of the pure sound was palpable. And not only the soft passages impressed: the frighteningly brutal and direct "Libera me" also made one's hair stand on end.

Two additional examples of Bostridge's artistry: in Offertorium, the tenor sings "My Father". In the course of one ascending fourth, a transformation from trust to desperate disappointment took place. Similarly, within a brief time span in Agnus Dei, the tenor articulated a phrase that begins with two upbeats and an accented downbeat: each of the three b's had a completely different voice quality, a compelling and unsettling effect. His phrases are so laden with expression that the listening experience is intense and uneasy.

Sanctum opened with a great build-up, an absolutely enthralling crescendo; the structure was clear, the mood amazing. The Benedictus consists of an inexorable striding in the string pizzicato: nothing can hold this music up, even the solo soprano above the ensemble. The extended, quiet ending to Libera me formed a perfect arch, all the way to "Let us sleep now", when the spooky c-f# tritone from the beginning returned in the boys' choir.

The audience gave the entire ensemble many curtain calls, not wanting the evening to end too quickly.