Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Not so Little Britten

Hi everybody. I'm in a darkened conference room in Brighton, attending the annual conference of my union, UCU. Being academics or academic-related, we call it Congress because we're posh. Or perhaps because some lonely teachers are hoping to engage in some horizontal Congress…

Brighton looks lovely: the road from the station runs directly downhill to the sea, so the jaded pedestrian heads towards a patch of deep blue which comes to dominate the horizon, before reaching the seafront and an expanse of the briny stuff. The town's a mix of chi-chi style (sorry to ruin it everybody) and agreeably seedy murk. All very reminiscent of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock and Julie Burchill's gloriously tacky Sugar Rush.

Congress itself is a bizarre mix of the serious-minded, the political grandstanders and an academic support group. The SWP, behaving as if they aren't a bunch of rape apologists who should be ashamed of themselves, ring the building, though there's a disappointing absence of most of the other left groups (not that I think the SWP is left anymore). There's students' union style shenanigans with motions and composite motions and amendments of course, lots of freebies and all sorts of fringe events. I just went to one on excessive workload. Ironically, I couldn't give it my full attention because I'm marking essays and reading an MA dissertation at the same time.

However, before I dive headlong into UCU life as one of Mr Gove's 'Blob' and a 'Marxist Enemy of Promise' (I now have a badge), I wanted to prolong last night's joy and sadness a little longer. I went to Birmingham's Symphony Hall for a performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. Conducted by Andris Nelsons and performed by the CBSO, CBSO Chorus, CBSO Youth Choir (hidden away to tremendous effect) and soloists Erin Wall, Mark Padmore and Hanno Müller-Brachmann, it was a performance I'm never going to forget.

I'm not a huge Britten fan – mostly from ignorance, I confess: I love the more experimental work of Vaughan Williams, Turnage, Maxwell-Davies and the Wilsons, and all sorts of other modern(ist) British composers, but other than Peter Grimes, I don't know too much Britten. Now my eyes (and ears) have been opened. The War Requiem, composed for the opening of Coventry Cathedral in 1962,  is just astonishing. Britten being a gay lefty, I was expecting great things rather than the usual propagandist nationalist nonsense, and I was more than provided for. It's structured for a mini chamber orchestra, a full orchestra, a huge choir, 3 soloists, a children's choir, organ and piano. The text is split between the Latin text of a Requiem Mass and various excerpts from the kind of war poetry governments dislike. There's no bombast or jingoism here: it's an excoriating, heartbreaking attack on the political systems which lead to mass slaughter. It's angry, sad and relentlessly serious. The sound reflects the sentiment: there's little respite, although there are moments of utter beauty. This isn't music designed to legitimise destruction and murder, to tidy it up and place war beyond politics and debate: it's a lament for the waste and inhumanity. I can easily understand why Shostakovich listened to the Requiem obsessively and pressed it on all his friends.

As to the CBSO's performance - they and the conductor Andris Nelsons proved yet again why they're one of the best ensembles in the world at the moment. This difficult, complex music wasn't just performed technically well: the dynamics and the emotional effects were perfect. The children's choir was disturbing and ethereal and the largely amateur CBSO Chorus wrung every ounce of suffering and desolation from their parts. For me, the test of a good choir isn't power and volume: it's the ability to maintain beauty, diction and control in the quietest passages. The Requiem demanded total control and the Chorus demonstrated once again just how amazing they are.

At the end of the 88 minutes, performed without an interval (thankfully), the audience was stunned into silence. I've never heard such a long, profound silence after the baton went down. I was moved to tears, both by the subject matter and the performance and I think others were too. Nelsons stood there, slumped, exhausted and spent, until finally he exchanged weary, emotional hugs with the singers - they'd been through the emotional wringer and the event transcended the usual very British reserve seen on platforms.

Here's the whole thing, not by the CBSO (you can buy their DVD though). It's one of the most profound, moving experiences you might ever have. Take some time to listen to it.

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