Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
There was something very radical about Thomas Sondergard’s first War Requiem with the RSNO.
The ingredients and shape of Benjamin Britten’s perennial concert of remembrance, themselves a mirror of those that made the Edinburgh International Festival 15 years earlier, are so familiar – to many contemporary schoolchildren as well as those of 1962 – that the work seems to require concentration on the structure the composer created.
The RSNO’s music director, however, looked beyond that from the first bars of his War Requiem on Saturday evening.
Of course, all the building blocks were there: the orchestra’s chorus, now directed by Stephen Doughty, in the choir stalls, and the RSNO Junior Chorus, drilled by Patrick Barrett, invisible to most but very audible in the balcony; a packed platform with John Poulter’s percussion at the front of a chamber orchestra led by Maya Iwabuchi stage left, and Lena Zeliszewska the first violin of the bulk of the ensemble on Sondergard’s other side.
The conductor was also flanked by tenor Magnus Walker and baritone Benjamin Appl, while soprano Susanne Bernhard, as is now customary, was amongst the musicians and nearer her choral partners in the score.
That chorus, though, began its Requiem Aeternam almost at a whisper, and without standing. And when Walker, an on-the-day dep for the indisposed Stuart Jackson, intoned Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, it was entirely without tolling bells or rattling guns, but as a quiet cry of despair. The “pity of war” was no memory here – it was a lamentable presence in the hall.
If this was startling and disconcerting – this is not how Britten’s War Requiem is supposed to begin, surely? – it was also incontrovertibly true. We live at a time where war in Europe is no history lesson, but on our televisions daily, in a way that it was not when the composer’s work premiered.
Sondergard’s War Requiem played out in real time as an operatic soundtrack. It was as slow as I have ever heard it, and more integrated as a piece of through-composed music. Anyone without a libretto on their knee would have been pushed to identify all the switches from Latin liturgy to 20th century verse, and the contrasts between those elements, as sung by the choirs and soprano on the one hand and the male soloists on the other, and played by each of the teams of instrumentalists, were never a distracting part of the mechanism of the performance, where that is often the crucial engine of an interpretation.
Instead, from that disconcerting opening, where listeners familiar with the work might have struggled to find their path, the 90-minute score blossomed as a debate and dialogue between all those instrumental and vocal ingredients. If you share the faith expressed in the words of the “In paridisum” towards its end, there is comfort there, but the message that little has changed in our own age was stronger, and the final prayer for eternal rest for those who have fallen and will fall held Saturday’s audience in solemn silence at the work’s end.
Picture: Susanne Bernhard by Christine Schnieder