Tale of two cities

On Friday night I listened “blind” to the broadcast by the MSO from the Melbourne Town Hall of Britten’s “War Requiem.” That is, I came in just as it started and only found out who it was at the end. I can’t say that I listened to all of it with equal concentration – I had a bath and did a few other pottery things of varying incompatibility with devoting my full attention to it.

The performance was billed as the MSO’s third only of the work and the first since 1974 (it seems the first was in 1968) which is surprising. I wonder how often the SSO has done it – more I think, though some Sydney performances were probably under the auspices of the choir responsible or even the AYO, as may well have been the case in Melbourne. It was also presented as the inaugural concert for the MSO’s move to the Melbourne Town Hall for the duration of renovations to their usual principal venue, the Hamer Hall.

An international cast (in the proper sense, inter se, and not merely “non-Australian”) had been assembled, mimicking the plans for the first performance, with one significant substitution: the Japanese principal guest conductor, Tadaaki Otaka, for Oleg Caetani, the former chief conductor, who it seems to me could have claimed any one of a range of world-war-participant nationalities.

I really appreciate that you can hear a live (or recorded live) concert from Australia 6 nights per week on ABC Classic FM. Live concert recordings are special, and a distinctive contribution that radio stations can make – so much else is mere disc-jockeying.

It wasn’t a perfect performance, but that’s what live performances are about. I’m not sure that the recording technicians have quite got the hang of the Melbourne Town Hall yet, though the forces involved for this work probably presented particular challenges. The juxtaposition of the ethereal (and intended to be distant) boys’ voices with the contending tenor and baritone facing off death, came off all wrong because the men’s voices were still mixed up loud to match the full orchestra. This was one case where the distant element needed to be brought forward in the recording.

The work itself, received by me in my youth as the epitome of earnest, eloquent and ethical music, now seems to me just a little melodramatic, and even its ethical component (the pacifism) seems about as bold as, today, expressing an admiration for, say, Nelson Mandela. If I’d been there, or even given it less divided attention at home, I doubt if I would have felt the melodrama, and indeed by the end I was drawn into it and the occasion.

In the wake of the concerns du jour, I couldn’t entirely dismiss the thought that those ethereal treble moments (and indeed Britten’s entire oeuvre for the treble voice) would today be liable to be led as Exhibit A: grooming behaviour. That highly reductionist notion is a thought for another day – to be addressed along with Wagner’s antisemitism, perhaps…

On Saturday afternoon, I listened (subject to hanging out the washing, etc etc) to two thirds of a program which I heard in the 6.30 series last year of the SSO conducted by Richard Gill. If anything, the radiophonic realisation of the SOH acoustic is an improvement on what you can actually hear from any spot in the hall (mostly a question of clarity or rather its lack) but the acoustic which comes across, subject to this refinement and the usual balance tweaks, is recognizably how it sounds when you are there.

7 Responses to “Tale of two cities”

  1. wanderer Says:

    I wish it were performed on Anzac day, every year. (Sydney’s last was 2007, with the AYO.)

    • marcellous Says:

      IMHO, an annual performance would risk the offspring of familiarity.

      It’s a work I’m more than happy to hear (was 2007 really the last performance?). But until I am in the auditorium I know too much about Britten and have become too cynical about his capacity to hug centre stage in the world of my musical teachers to be able to respond to the work with quite the enthusiasm I could have once given it.

      Maybe that is just a symptom of what I recall at least once taxing one of my elders with when younger: “world weariness.”

  2. wanderer Says:

    I’m not sure exactly what is too much to know ( I only really know what I’ve read, and that be several books, the last being Britten’s Children, or deduced/extrapolated from composition). And (why) isn’t the work able to stand on its own, after all he was asked to do it. I can’t think of a more genuine or effective antiwar work of the last century. Are you sceptical of his flight to America?

    Perhaps familiarity has more than one offspring: contempt’s sibling twins tradition and respect.

    2007 yes as far as I know, could be wrong, often am.

  3. marcellous Says:

    It’s just that in retrospect the antiwar scheme of the work seems rather obvious and the whole concept just a little melodramatic. Not that melodrama isn’t par for the course (death/requiem/pity of war), and in a live performance it would be part of the occasion…

    I have no cavil with the US “flight,” though I continue to wonder how Britten first accepted and then trashed the Japanese commission for the Sinfonia da Requiem.

    To tell the truth, it isn’t really the “Britten’s Children” aspect which concerns me, as opposed to a lingering suspicion of Britten’s capacity to stick to the safely only slightly radical – the acceptable and I am sure necessarily political path of the great modern English composer. If we were to take sincerity as the touchstoneby shouldn’t we be thinking first of Tippett? There’s a man who actually did time for his pacifism.

  4. wanderer Says:

    For me, obvious isn’t a weakness, especially considering its origins.

    The Japanese commission was for a symphony, to celebrate some dynastic anniversary, and that he delivered them the Sinfonia da Requiem, which they (hardly unexpectedly) rejected, was nothing if not surely deliberate, provocative even.

    There is this ‘thing’ some people have with Britten, that he didn’t do the right thing by the war effort. Well, for whatever reason, he did cross the Atlantic, U-boats and all, and face the tribunal. He didn’t have to. And Tippett didn’t have to serve time. There was the option of noncombatant duties. Can Britten not seeing prison be put down to a lack of sincerity?

    He later deals with conscientious objection in Owen Wingrave. Maybe we could have that next Anzac Day! On TV, after the march.

    I am, for the record, a Vietnam call-up escapee.

  5. marcellous Says:

    Yes, well Britten shouldn’t have accepted the Japanese commission in the first place, but I guess he was just too up-and-coming to knock it back.

    I’m not saying BB wasn’t sincere, but like so many public figures, he did do quite well out of it.

  6. Don’t encourage them | Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] their work.] The quality of recordings made in 2012 likely to have been adversely affected by their exile from the Hamer Hall for two years prior to its reopening in about August […]

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