Only 16 years (1945–1961) separate Benjamin Britten‘s Peter Grimes from his War Requiem; they are alike in many ways but different in many more. Hearing them both on the same day, last Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, underlined their common bond and their differences.
Both are the works of a deeply reactive man with his own nerves rubbed raw from society-imposed frictions: Britten the pacifist, Britten the homosexual, Britten the artist defining a distinctive personality within an area of style that he was obliged to invent work by work. In his magnificent legacy, these two works stand together as the ones motivated by concerns deepest within his own personality. They are the two, out of all the splendor of Britten’s bequeathal, in whose presence it is the most difficult to remain unmoved.
They are works drenched in rage. The misanthropic Grimes is rendered catatonic by the narrow-minded misjudgments of his villagers. The rage in the War Requiem is on a far broader scale, as the bitter cynicism of Wilfred Owen‘s poetry, interspersed among the texts of the Latin Requiem, snarls at those classic verses and mocks them into meaninglessness. Both scores become curdling experiences, because their composer is close behind each of them, revealing his own pangs in the only way society would permit, through these intensely personal analogies.
Within their century, they are also terminal works. The genre of the grand, romantic opera, set into a time and place remote from our own, whose populace turns its realities into artifice by forming itself into a chorus, with characters etched by their own music and by goings-on in a large orchestra, came to its end with Peter Grimes; Britten himself later worked with smaller models superb in different ways. I can’t name a later opera comparable to Grimes in size and shape that belongs on the same shelf: not Gatsby; not The Ghosts of Versailles; possibly Dialogues des Carmelites; what else? In the same way, there are no large-scale choral works after the War Requiem aimed at reaching out to a hearer‘s conscience; this work ends the cycle that began with Handel, was variously nourished for the next two centuries, and, after Britten, fizzled ignominiously with the Paul McCartney Liverpool Oratorio and its unworthy clones.
Not everybody looks to Britten as one of his century’s prime innovators. Some things, to be sure, he did better than anyone else before or since, most of all demonstrating his marvelous insight into the nature of English words, their rhythms and their resonances. Dig into his music anywhere, into my own favorites — which include the Tennyson moment (”the splendor falls“) in the Serenade, Grimes‘ ”Now the Great Bear and Pleiades“ or almost any line in The Rape of Lucretia — or any hundred thousand other choices, and you are in thrall to one of the greatest vocal composers ever to try to transmute English language into high art.
It is this mastery of language, of course, that lends a special thread to any group of performers once they have mastered the pitfalls and potholes of English words. One of the amazements in this splendid glut of Britten these past few days was the consistent high level of declamation — from the Brits (Philip Langridge’s Grimes, and the sounding brass of Owen‘s defiant words as sung by the remarkable Ian Bostridge, about whom more next week) but from the non-Brits as well (Richard Stilwell’s sturdy Balstrode and Suzanna Guzman‘s delicious Sedley in Peter Grimes, the excellent German baritone Thomas Mohr in the War Requiem). One other Brit, film director John Schlesinger, staged a violent, edgy Grimes on Luciana Arrighi’s ade-quate but rather stodgy sets. Richard Armstrong‘s conducting committed no egregious errors but contributed no egregious momentum either.
The L.A. Opera has more than held its own in its adventures into the Britten repertory over the years, and this latest — co-produced with the Washington Opera and La Scala — counts as a distinguished addition. Antonio Pappano, who takes over the Royal Opera’s podium season after next and who has visited the Los Angeles Philharmonic before with variable results, did everything needed to turn the War Requiem into a memorable occasion, with strong work from a huge Master Chorale contingent and, as one miscalculation, the children‘s choir placed somewhere offstage almost to the point of inaudibility.
On the night before my Britten immersion, within the same walls, I found myself listening to Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with more pleasure than I had believed possible, discovering delight in small moments (e.g., the winds‘ soft reprise of the main tune after the first-movement cadenza and the kicky off-the-beat accents in the finale). Part of my reaction came from hearing an orchestra gainfully employed once again, after the dreary monochrome exercises of Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 5, Etc. in Costa Mesa the week before. Part of it was the serene, elegant, intelligent performance by Midori, whose playing I seem to enjoy every other time I hear her and deplore the times in between. Intelligent playing of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto? An oxymoron, I know; you had to be there.
Sharing the stage that night was the visiting NDR Symphony from Hamburg, with its conductor, Christoph Eschenbach, whom every orchestra in the world seems anxious to kidnap for its own these days. As near as I could tell from a one-shot hearing — a process complicated when the woman in J-31 smuggled her drink into the hall and chewed ice all through the Tchaikovsky (and you thought idiots only brought in cell phones!) — the NDR is a solid, clean, precise ensemble, and is thus a fair mirror of Eschenbach‘s own strengths.
Unfortunately the program also included a work I dislike far more than the Tchaikovsky, Arnold Schoenberg’s worthless orchestration of the Brahms G-minor Piano Quartet: an overstuffed monstrosity imposed upon a work that, in its original condition, is one of the less-unlistenable of Brahms‘ chamber works. What Schoenberg has done — most likely to attach his name to a piece that might pass for pretty and thus earn performances — is to inflate to one further stage the worst aspects of Brahms’ own orchestral writing. How bad the latter can be was nicely underlined in the dances by Dvorak and Smetana that the NDR played as encores: beautifully shaped, mellow orchestrations full of built-in smiles. The orchestra was scheduled to play a better program the next night in Costa Mesa, but Britten beckoned.