Review: NACO’s first-ever War Requiem marshals a rousing army of musicians

With the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, it isn’t surprising to see an uptick in performances of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. The Toronto Symphony presented it earlier this week, and Friday it was NACO’s turn in front of a sold-out Southam Hall.

This was the first-ever War Requiem for NACO. Composed for the 1962 consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral — rebuilt after it was bombed to rubble in the Second World War — it’s a work of truly epic scale and ambition: two orchestras (full and chamber), massed adult and children’s choirs, organ and three soloists.

Every inch of the stage was crammed with musicians. The German National Youth Orchestra joined NACO for the performance,while the enormous choir was made up of the Ottawa Choral Society, Capital Chamber Choir, Ottawa Festival Chorus, and Ewashko Singers. Singers from the Ottawa Regional Youth Choir and the Ottawa Children’s Chamber Choir were placed in an upper balcony.

Alexander Shelley was the fieldmarshal to this army, leading with focus, clarity, and a particular sensitivity to the work’s ambiguity. Despite its scale and extensive use of brass and percussion, this is no jingoistic anthem: Britten was a lifelong pacifist and conscientious objector, and even the score’s military flourishes should be coloured, as Shelley did, with irony and no small dose of fear.  

The young German musicians were of the highest quality, integrating seamlessly with the professionals in the tutti group. Although the limited space meant they could not be placed The chamber ensemble, comprised of NACO’s principals, created intimate, transparent contrast with the impressive muscularity of the larger orchestra.

Baritone James Westman’s singing was admirably communicative, conversational, almost extemporaneous. Westman has a gift for making Wilfred Owen’s somewhat formal poetry seem natural and vividly alive, never overacting or sacrificing his warm, noble tone.  Singing from her place in the chorus, Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova had no problem projecting over the orchestra with her sumptuous, ravishingly pretty sound. Fresh off his Canadian Opera Company run in Rufus Wainwright’s new opera Hadrian, the young Canadian tenor Isaiah Bell appeared fatigued: missing attack and energy, his attractive voice slightly raw around the edges, his interpretation a little sleepy and uninvested.

The massed chorus had a shaky start with uncertain entrances and ragged diction. Perhaps their initial seated position had something to do with it; once standing they also snapped to attention vocally with a brutal and hellish Dies Irae. A choral highlight was the Recordare, sung by the women with ample sweetness and pure tone. But it was the children’s chorus, superbly prepared by Jamie Loback, that took the prize, singing from aloft to create an angelic otherworldly effect.

For the final Requiescant in pace, the chorus closed their music books and sang from memory, a wall of red poppies facing the audience. Shelley took a long moment of silence after Britten’s final, resolved chord floated away, letting the moving, dignified solemnity of the occasion sink in before welcoming the audience’s applause.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.