This performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was just as ambitious a project as the fully-staged operas that the Slaithwaite Phil has mounted at Huddersfield Town Hall in recent years.
With its massive choral and orchestral forces and an unbroken 80-minute musical texture that presents many technical challenges, the Requiem was a performance that confirms the current excellence of the Colne Valley-based orchestra under the direction of Benjamin Ellin.
Britten’s famous work – premièred in 1962 at the consecration of the new Cathedral in Coventry after its ancient predecessor had been destroyed in the Blitz – is actually a dramatic work in its own right. Although it has the form and text of the Latin requiem mass, it is interpolated with solo and duet settings of poems written during World War One by Wilfred Owen.
The performance conducted by Ellin had a true dramatic arc, drawn persuasively towards the long final poem with its refrain, a duet between tenor Justin Lavender and baritone Edward Grint, both of whom displayed the clarity that was required. With Owen’s refrain of ‘’let us sleep’’, interspersed with the Latin mass’s plea for eternal rest, this is a great moment of solemn drama, emphasised by the long silence held by the conductor after the final Amen.
The Slaithwaite Phil was augmented by young professionals of the Piccadilly Symphony Orchestra, who provided the chamber accompaniments to the solos.
Although the Town Hall does not provide the scope for spatial separation that Coventry Cathedral did in 1962, we had the powerful soprano soloist lona Domnich positioned at the top of the stage, adjacent to the organ, and the singers of Huddersfield Boys Choir and Bradford Catholic Boys Choir placed in the Gallery and this was very effective. The main body of singers was the Bradford Festival Choral Society.
The concert had opened with a fascinating new work by Benjamin Ellin himself. Entitled Letters from Home, it lasts just 15 minutes but made such a good impression that it deserves to become well-established not only as a commemoration of WWI but as a skilled and moving setting of some intriguing English texts.
The composer’s attention was drawn to an archive of poems written by wounded soldiers who were treated at Royds Hall in Huddersfield, a temporary military hospital that is now a school. The five poems he selected – all by different authors – are varied in tone and style but are something of a revelation as an example of the poignancy, compassion and wry fatalism of the best amateur poetry of the period.
They range from the A E Houseman-tinged Down through the Dell so Dear, by J.J. Britton – given a suitably lyrical and pastoral setting by Ellin – to the Kiplingesque banter and devastating pay-off in The Woman Wot’s Left Behind by Sgt W E Hastings.
The soloist throughout was the mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanais-Simmons and while I was not wholly convinced about the rationale for a female voice in these poems, she was increasingly impressive and soared very movingly in the final poem.
Throughout the cycle there was a great range of orchestral effects and styles, including the all-brass and tymps accompaniment to My Dug Out by G Chaudley and the insistent drone in W E F Marsden’s fatalistic Knicketty-Knock.
I hope this work receives many more performances because the texts and the music will stand a great deal of analysis and interpretation.