Plea for peace as powerful as ever

21 August 2022

A fine association between WASO and guests demonstrates that the chilling message in Britten’s War Requiem is as pertinent as when it was composed, writes Penny Shaw.

“Britten’s War Requiem”, West Australian Symphony Orchestra ·
Perth Concert Hall, 20 August 2022 ·

At 60 years old, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem has lost none of its power to shock and move an audience. It is a colossal undertaking, last performed by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in 1979. Tonight every square metre of the Perth Concert Hall is occupied as WASO is joined by the musicians of the Australian National Academy of Music, the combined power of three choirs and three exceptional soloists, all under the baton of maestro Asher Fisch. 

The piece was commissioned for the 1962 reopening of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by bombings in November 1940. Britten was a pacifist and conscientious objector who moved to the US during World War II and his thoughts on the futility of war are startlingly clear right from the opening bars. The text of the traditional Latin requiem mass is asking God for eternal rest, but the tolling of bells and the underlying harmonic dissonance tells us we are not going to get it.

Tenor Paul O’Neill, above, and baritone David Greco, below, deliver impressive solos. Photos: Linda Dunjey

WASO Chorus, directed by Andrew Foote, and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Chorus under June Tyzack, tackle Britten’s fiendish music with impeccable precision, displaying a full emotional range and beauty of tone. Just as impressive is Hugh Lydon’s excellent Aquinas College Schola Cantorum. They are situated just out of my sight but their angelic treble voices give an added poignancy and pathos. 

The catharsis and comfort of the familiar Latin mass, however, is soon shattered by the devastating realities of war as Britten’s music combines with Wilfred Owen’s searing poetry.

Tenor Paul O’Neill’s opening solo, the poem “Anthem for a Doomed Youth”, has a frenetic and almost dispassionate quality, devoid of pity. The opening line “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” is chillingly brought to life by O’Neill’s excellent diction. 

Equally strong is baritone David Greco, whose voice carries the perfect balance of mourning and menace, lamenting the bugles “saddening the evening air”. The combination of the two voices in “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” is exceptional, Greco violently spitting the text “but slew his son, and half the seed of Europe one by one”. This, interspersed with the ethereal sound of the boys’ choir is a devastating illustration of how the choices made by one generation leave the next to suffer the consequences.

If the soldiers and the words of Owen are unapologetically rooted to the earth then Elena Perroni’s smooth soprano is a glorious representation of heaven. A vision in white, her voice soars above the full orchestra, floating effortlessly over the choir in the Sanctus as the babble of voices builds to a climax. 

The extensive use of the tritone (the devil’s) scale, the military drums, the tolling of bells, and with the pleading ascending phrase of O’Neill’s “Dona nobis pacem” hanging in the air, the audience is left gasping. Only at the very end of the piece, after an emotionally draining account of Owen’s “Strange Meeting” (“I am the enemy you killed, my friend”) does the whole musical texture integrate – full orchestra, chamber orchestra, soprano, tenor, baritone and chorus – into a tenuous resolution: “Let us sleep now”. 

When War Requiem was first performed in 1962 the Berlin wall had just gone up, the Cuban missile crisis was about to break out and the threat of nuclear war would have been keenly felt by the audience. Today, with another war in Europe and tensions building across the world it is easier than ever to access horrific images of war and also to immediately swipe them away. Owen wrote “all a poet can do is warn”, and in writing to his sister after the premiere, Britten said of his music, “I hope it’ll make people think a bit.”

It certainly does.

The next event in WASO’s Masters series is “Beethoven and Prokofiev” on 2-3 September 2022

Pictured top: Elena Perroni’s smooth soprano soars above the orchestra. Photo by Linda Dunjey

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Author —
Penny Shaw

Penny is an opera singer/cabaret artist/MC/podcaster/writer/director, in fact a self-confessed 'slashie' with a degree in Human Sciences from Oxford University. As a child she loved the the heady terror of a fast roundabout, as a mother of four children she hates swings.

Past Articles

  • Young singers in full voice for opera allsorts

    With 16 soloists, a 37-piece orchestra and a wonderfully varied repertoire, this opera gala is worth singing about, writes Penny Shaw.

  • A superb taste of Spain

    Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya leads a playful WASO through some Spanish flavours, with Penny Shaw particularly taken by a thrilling interpretation of Rodrigo’s famous Adagio. 

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