Art remembering war is always a fraught endeavor. Large and weighty public narratives of commemoration can often seem at odds with the private sting of loss.
Against this backdrop, Britten’s “War Requiem” stands out for how it surveys the past from 10,000 feet but also restores the granularity of individual soldiers suffering in the trenches. Its pathos and power derive from the way Britten interweaves settings of two very different texts: the traditional Latin mass for the Dead and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, a soldier who fought and died in World War I, and whose verse captured the sensual immediacy of the battlefield as well as the utter pointlessness of mass slaughter, the sheer fathomless waste of it all.
In honor of the composer’s centenary, the Boston Symphony Orchestra is returning to the “War Requiem” this week for the first time in over a decade, with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the American Boychoir joining Thursday night under the veteran baton of Charles Dutoit.
Britten composed the work for the 1962 consecration of Saint Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, which was destroyed by German bombers in 1940. As a symbolic gesture, he wrote the work with soloists in mind from three combatant nations: a British tenor, a German baritone, and a Russian soprano. For this week’s performances, the BSO — which has its own place in the history of this work, having given the American premiere at Tanglewood — honors Britten’s original idea by casting once more a British tenor (John Mark Ainsley), a German baritone (Matthias Goerne), and a Russian soprano (Tatiana Pavlovskaya).
Dutoit has a steady hand for large-scale works of this nature, and Thursday’s performance had poise and eloquence if not always a persuasive sense of the work’s larger architecture and sweep. The soloists sang capably, with the tonally resonant Goerne as the clear standout thanks to his dramatic focus and expressive precision, the way he held a mirror to Owen’s texts across their full emotional range, from a tender wistfulness to a kind of stentorian moral rage. (In one lacerating poem, Abraham ignores the angel and murders Isaac, with Owen adding: “and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”)
Ainsley’s delivery of the Owen texts was clear and secure if less fully inhabited, and Pavlovskaya sang her solos (largely from the Latin requiem texts) with enough power and electricity to slice through the orchestra and chorus. Lofting voices from the second balcony, the American Boychoir sang well. And several of the evening’s most memorable moments came courtesy of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, including the “Kyrie eleison,” remarkable in its hushed grandeur.Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org