[Email— an memorial
Kicking off The List’s packed Mayfest preview section. conductor Martyn Brabbins reveals to Alan Morrison the significance of performing Britten’s War Requiem in the Harland and Wolff shipyard on Clydeside.
For whatever reason — perhaps a growing sense of their own mortality — several composers down the ages seem to have pulled the stops out when it came to writing a Requiem Mass. Mozart's has a fiery deﬁance. Berlioz‘s has a romantic power and even Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s has a credibility beyond his stage musicals. Few. however. are as poignant as the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten.
While retaining the traditional structure of the Latin Mass. Britten interspersed the text with nine poems by Wilfred Owen. the young British poet who was killed towards the end of World War l. in this way. the composer was able to create a work that succeeded in remembering the war dead with a sense of dignity, while also delivering a strong indictment on the futility of war itself.
‘People say that Verdi‘s Requiem is his greatest opera and, in a way, with Britten l somehow feel it‘s a similar kind of thing.’ says Martyn Brabbins. who will conduct a large scale production of the War
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Benjamin Britten: ‘a knack of speaking directly about war’
Requiem at the old Harland and Wolff shed in Govan dtrring Mayfest. ‘What's so good about it is the consistency. because in the operas. he‘s always serving the drama. Here the whole story. if you like. is so much more monochrome — it‘s all about the same thing — and he just focuses more strongly on the pity of the whole thing. the stupidity of war and the sadness of losing friends and colleagues. it‘s so intense that. for me. it's his masterpiece.‘
Britten‘s instinctive sense of theatre comes to the fore not only through his use ofthe poems. but also in the richly diverse texture of the music. A chamber orchestra is used alongside and at times within. the
symphony orchestra. while a children's choir is set
against the main chorus. The solo soprano. tenor and
BOOSIEY & llAWKiiS
baritone — in this case. Lynda Russell. Thomas Randle and Michael Voile — take up individual passages. it‘s a huge work with enormous immediate impact and. in this respect. the setting of this performance in the Harland and Wolff shed couldn't be more appropriate.
it was here. on Clydeside. that many of Britain's warships were built; but it‘s also an area of Scotland that suffered heaviest under German bombings. Regardless of the resonance of the acoustics. this is a building that will have a strong symbolic resonance for the piece. which was ﬁrst performed in I962 in the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral. itself badly damaged by wartime bombings. Perhaps, given the unusual location and the sense of musical spectacle. the performance will attract a wider audience who don’t
‘Britten focuses more strongly on the pity of the whole thing, the stupidity of war and the sadness of losing friends and colleagues. It’s so intense that, for me, it’s his masterpiece.’
want to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War ll with street parties and Vera Lynn sing-a-longs.
"There are ecstatic moments in the piece,’ reckons Brabbins. ‘but they’ve always got an undercurrent of “why does this have to happen?" Britten has a knack of speaking so directly; he’s so communicative of “the pity of war" as he calls it.‘ it's no coincidence that Britten arranged Owen's poetry so that the ﬁnal lines say. ‘1 am the enemy you killed, my friend/l knew you in this dark . . ./Let us sleep now'. it’s this reconcilatory message of the War Requiem that perhaps makes it the perfect choice for a centrepiece event in Scotland's VE Day cornrnernorations. Britten 's War Requiem is performed by the BBC .S'eottish Symphony Orchestra and others at the Harland and Wolff shed on Sun 14.
Thejazz poet .
Mayfest has never been noted for the strength of its [an programme, and with the Glasgow Jazz Festival only a few weeks later that’s understandable. This year pickings are even slimmer than usual, but there’s one undisputed highlight - Tommy Smith’s new Suite for Sextet, which draws inspiration from Scots poet llorman McCaig.
The two performances of the Suite will coincide with its release on disc, under the title Misty Morning and lie 1 Time, though since recording the 1 music in December, Smith has I, continued to tinker with the l composition. The sextet did a couple I of wann-up concerts prior to the studio session, but the Mayfest concerts will be a kind of unofficial official premiere. it’s also the first i
"3/136, (" 11' I . 21' time Smith’s music has been I performed with a reading (by Adam l l
McNaughton) of the fourteen McCaig poems which inspired it.
Tommy Smith: po ‘The relationship between the music and the poems kept changing as I worked on it,’ says Smith. ‘ln the first . instance, i found myself responding to
the images which came from them, but as the music progressed, i found that some of the music was actually being very directly influenced by the poems in an almost illustrative way.’
The Suite is Smith’s most complex and assured work to date, and is arguably the most fully realised project yet to emerge from the so- called flew British Jazz scene of the late 80s. For the players, though, it’s hard work.
‘The guys did find it difficult to play, but they all agree it is easy to listen to,’ says Smith. ‘The reason they found it hard was that while it really isn’t anything very new in structural terms, it avoids the major-minor keys and the common scales in favour of scales derived from people like Messiaen, Prokofiev and Satle, which they are not used to getting their fingers around.’ (Kenny Mathieson)
The Tommy Smith Sextet plays at the Citizen’s Theatre on Thurs 18 and Fri 19 May.
15 The List 5-18 May 1995