The LSO’s Unforgettable Beethoven and Britten

by Sedgwick Clark

If I never hear another concert I will die a contented music lover, having heard the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus perform Beethoven’s Missa solemnis under Colin Davis and Britten’s War Requiem under Gianandrea Noseda last weekend. To see Davis, now 84 and in declining health, haltingly ascend the podium to sit and conquer this craggy Mass was almost unbearable. But his musical powers were undiminished in a performance of logical and emotional power from first note to last. It was the slowest Missa I’ve ever heard—over an hour and a half, not counting time between movements—and I hung on every single note.

I was not alone. Lincoln Center’s usually noisy and inattentive audience was utterly rapt until some yahoo shouted bravo before the last note had a chance to settle. For nearly two centuries the Missa has defeated listeners far more comprehending and spiritually inclined than I. One has to work, unlike in the contemporaneous Ninth Symphony, which abounds in engaging melodies.

No praise could be high enough for the conviction and execution of the LSO forces. British reviews for their Proms concert this past summer with Davis were more respectful than laudatory; if accurate, all I can figure is that the performance was a warm-up for this American engagement. Mezzo Sarah Connolly stood out among the vocal soloists. Concertmaster Gordan Nikolitch played the extended “Benedictus” violin solo eloquently. The timpanist’s dynamic use of hard Beethovenian sticks provided ideal punctuation. And Davis? He has always been true to the composer, if at times too reverently. On this evening his leadership was positively humbling. 

The LSO’s performance of Britten’s War Requiem on Sunday afternoon was no less affecting. The composer, a pacificist and apparent non-believer, combined the traditional Latin Requiem Mass and poems written by Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action seven days before the Armistice. Critics have split hairs since the premiere in May 1962, but Britten’s message has never escaped any audience I’ve been a part of.

The work is no stranger to New York. Kurt Masur led heartfelt performances of it twice and recorded it during his 13-year tenure with the Philharmonic; he once said he would program it every season if he could. Robert Shaw gave distinguished performances in Carnegie Hall. My own touchstone has been an emotionally devastating performance by the National Symphony Orchestra under Mstislav Rostropovich at Carnegie in early 1979, with Peter Pears, Galina Vishnevskaya, and John Shirley-Quirk as soloists. The LSO performance under Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda was in that league.

One knew that Noseda meant business when he stood on the podium for nearly a minute until all audience pre-performance rustling had ceased and then brought in the chorus’s “Requiem aeternam” at the threshold of audibility. There were a few more coughs throughout this performance than in the Beethoven, but not many, and at the very end Noseda drew out Britten’s pppp for all it was worth. The audience held its collective breath until he lowered his arms some 20 seconds later. In our day, when silence is intolerable, there is no higher compliment.

The success of the performance was also due, in no small measure, to the vocal forces: the LSO Chorus, again directed by Joseph Cullen; American Boychoir, directed by Fernando Malvar-Ruiz; soprano Sabina Cvilak, tenor Ian Bostridge, and baritone Simon Keenlyside.

Britten might have found it ironic that his War Requiem would be paired so rewardingly with Beethoven, a composer he disparaged. But his music, like Beethoven’s, has always spoken to distinctly human concerns, and the War Requiem may be his most enduring testimony.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts:

10/27 Carnegie Hall. Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä; Stephen Hough, piano. Tchaikovsky: Voyevoda Overture; Piano Concerto No. 1. Nielsen: Symphony No. 3 (“Sinfonia espansiva”).

10/28 Carnegie Hall. Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer; András Schiff, piano. Schubert: Overture to Die Zauberharfe; Symphony No. 5. Bartók: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 3.

10/29 Carnegie Hall. Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer; András Schiff, piano. Bartók: Hungarian Peasant Songs; Piano Concerto No. 2

10/30 Metropolitan Opera. Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Helmut Deutsch. Works by Schumann, Mahler, Duparc, R. Strauss.

11/2 Avery Fisher Hall. New York Philharmonic; Philip Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble; Collegiate Chorale. Conducted by Michael Riesman. Live performance with film. Glass: Koyaanisqatsi.

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