Ian Bostridge and MSO bring Britten’s War Requiem to Melbourne

Ian Bostridge and MSO bring Britten’s War Requiem to Melbourne


Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem – his grandest work and a powerful pacifist piece – is physically thrilling to hear because it is so big, and the loudest climax in the last movement is overwhelming, says English tenor Ian Bostridge. And Bostridge should know, because he has sung it “60 or 70 times”.

The next time will be in collaboration with an Australian orchestra, a German bass-baritone a Russian soprano and an English conductor at Hamer Hall, in honour of the combatants of both world wars.

An architecturally complicated work, the War Requiem juxtaposes the Latin requiem against poems by the great World War I poet Wilfred Owen, by means of three groups. The soprano, choir and full orchestra sing the Latin requiem, joined at times by a boys’ choir with organ, while the tenor, baritone and a chamber orchestra present the poems.

Coventry CathedralCoventry Cathedral Photo: Supplied

The Melbourne forces will be soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, Bostridge, bass-baritone Dietrich Henschel, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus, the Australian Boys’ Choir, the MSO and chief conductor Sir Andrew Davis.

Conductor Marin Alsop has written that the requiem explores themes that are universal to human experience, though it addresses questions of mortality in more humanistic terms than traditional liturgical settings.

“No piece of art can bring back a single one of the millions of people killed in armed combat since Wilfred Owen’s death in 1918, but the War Requiem can challenge us to think about what it is we ask people to do when we send them to war. This is what art is for, and it’s important,” she wrote.

The requiem had its premiere at the 1962 consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, the 14th century one having been destroyed by German bombs in World War II, and looks back to World War I. According to Bostridge, it is special because of its historical place, because of its emotional power, because it is one of the most-performed works written after 1945 and because it appeals to such a broad audience, which is testimony to Britten’s genius.

It is significant to Bostridge. “It’s the piece I’ve performed more than any other except perhaps the Schubert song cycles. It’s been a big part of my life. I started performing it in the mid-1990s when we were commemorating 50th anniversaries of events in the Second World War, and I was part of that generation – I was born in 1964 – when the war was still something present to us, so it means a lot in that way.

“It also means a lot because it’s by a composer very close to me, and it’s one of his masterpieces, and it manages to be at the same time modern and forward-looking yet speak a language that can reach out to people.”

Bostridge remembers some extraordinary performances, one led by Mstislav Rostropovich who was a close friend of Britten’s and experienced the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call World War II.

Another was in the Proms with Colin Davis to an enormous audience. He has also been in performances where the conductor got lost, “but that’s not going to happen this time”.

“It’s a huge mechanism to bring to life. It’s sheerly physically thrilling because it’s so big. For the conductor, you need someone like an Andrew Davis to bring it off because there are so many parts to bring together.”

Before the requiem, the concert features a work written in memory of another World War I poet: the Elegy in Memoriam Rupert Brooke by Australian composer Frederick Septimus Kelly, who fought at Gallipoli and died fighting in the Somme in 1916, aged 35. Kelly knew Brooke at Gallipoli.

Ian Bostridge is also performing a recital while he is in Melbourne, at the Recital Centre on June 15, where he will sing for the first time one of Schubert’s longest songs, Einsamkeit, or Loneliness.

It’s not often performed, he says, but it is an amazing work. “It is Schubert’s response to Beethoven. Schubert had been writing songs since he was a teenager, and he was a master of the genre, which was recognised in Vienna.

“Suddenly along comes Beethoven, his great hero and the famous composer of the day, and he writes his one masterpiece in the song genre, An die ferne Geliebte. I think that shocked Schubert into something more ambitious, and that’s what Einsamkeit is – full of piano invention and wonderful melody.”

Also on the program is Vaughan Williams’ song cycle On Wenlock Edge, which Bostridge considers one of the rare great masterpieces of English song.

“It also had connections with the First World War, in the same way as do settings of A. E. Houseman by Vaughan Williams’ friend Butterworth. The soldiers took the poems to war with them, and they have a lot of war references, and I think that as a result after the war this music took on a new resonance.”

Britten’s War Requiem is at Hamer Hall, June 11-12. mso.com.a


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