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Review: War Requiem at Liverpool Cathedral ****

Benjamin Britten penned his pacifist masterpiece for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962.

Liverpool Cathedral was still under construction in the early 60s, and unlike Coventry, had only suffered minor damage from what amounted – in the grand scheme of things – to a glancing blow during the heavy bombardment of the city during the Second World War.

But still, a similarly fitting setting for a performance packed with potent symbolism on the eve of an occasion of great national solemnity and solidarity.

As an occasion, and a statement of solidarity and reconciliation, this concert joining together the musicians of Liverpool and Hannover (the brainchild of conductor Andrew Manze who works in both) really defies being given something as prosaic as a ‘star’ rating.

As a performance, it produced some lovely, moving moments and succeeded in creating a powerful sense of both the futility of war and fragility of life – at least when it wasn’t being hampered by the cathedral’s notoriously unforgiving acoustics, which take music and voices and spiral them in to the heights like smoke disappearing up a chimney.

The exception to this acoustic challenge was the boy choristers stationed on the lofty Dulverton Bridge whose bell-like voices sang out with sweet angelic clarity in the Offertorium, and the brass section whose soaring fanfares glistened in the air – notably in the Sanctus.

The trio of soloists too achieved a subtle and tenderly affecting clarity in their performances, with soprano Susanne Bernhard singing from the pulpit, and tenor Ed Lyon and baritone Benjamin Appl in front of a chamber orchestra semi-circle which itself sat in front of the main phalanx of players.

The chamber players were individually mic-ed up to cope with the cavernous concert space, augmenting their impact but occasionally overwhelming the soloist as a result.

Conductor Andrew Manze. Top: The massed ranks of Liverpool and Hannover orchestra and choirs. Photos by Mark McNulty

There were spine-tingling moments – among them the final bars of Appl’s solo ‘be slowly lifted up’ (from Wilfred Owen’s Sonnet on Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Machinery) bleeding in to a full-blooded chorus giving voice to the impending day of wrath, and later in the same Dies Irae the tender tenor solo above a shimmering accompaniment and the silky smooth diminuendo of the choirs’ ‘Amen’.

At other however, the chorus became more of an amorphous sound, losing a clear sense of the words and meaning of Britten’s carefully-constructed piece.

Great thought had evidently gone in to every aspect of the evening however.

Each of the orchestra’s desks featured a pairing of players from Liverpool and Hannover, the choir was similarly mixed together (the German performers clearly visible in their white shirts and ties), the boy choristers from Liverpool and Knabenchnor Hannover mingled high above the nave – and English tenor and German baritone stood side by side as they gave voice to Owen’s poignant poetry, expressing his truth of ‘the pity’ of war.

Something indeed to reflect on as we gather to remember at so many memorials today.

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