Given the current world situation, it's tempting to describe Benjamin Britten's sobering War Requiem as timely. Yet since its first performance in 1962, each generation seems to have experienced its own need for the composer's eloquent plea for peace.
While pacifism may be just as unfashionable in today's climate as it was in the English composer's own time -- Britten wrote the work as the Berlin Wall was going up and U.S. bombs were raining down on Vietnam -- the Requiem itself remains a powerful, original and heartfelt work.
Thursday night at Davies Hall, Kurt Masur led the San Francisco Symphony in a handsome performance of Britten's masterful score. The conductor, who became the New York Philharmonic's music director emeritus earlier this year, may not have achieved an ideal reading of the work. Yet the performance, which repeats tonight and Saturday afternoon, was an apt reminder of its timeless ability to communicate the horrors of war.
Commissioned for the rededication of Coventry Cathedral, Britten's Requiem brilliantly fuses elements of the traditional Latin Mass for the dead with the penetrating 20th-century texts of Wilfred Owen.
Owen, an English soldier who was killed a week before the end of World War I, left the world some of the most vividly evocative antiwar poetry ever written. Britten incorporated it to unforgettable effect in a score that blends stretches of radiantly beautiful music with slashing statements for brass, stark bell sounds and ominous percussion.
Throughout Thursday's 90-minute performance, Masur and his forces balanced the work's mournful qualities with its pointedly accusatory tone. With the assistance of S.F. Symphony Youth Orchestra conductor Edwin Outwater, who led a smaller second onstage contingent, Masur shaped the performance into a series of large-scale dramatic episodes.
There were many arresting moments, from the hushed "Kyrie" to the muscular "Dies irae" and a fierce "Sanctus."
If the performance was sweeping in scope, it didn't always prove as touching as one might have wished. This was largely due to the uneven contributions from the vocal soloists. Soprano Christine Brewer was consistently strong, producing pure, beautiful tone and a tender, moving account of the "Lacrimosa." Unfortunately, tenor Jerry Hadley, singing the role written for Britten's partner, Peter Pears, overemoted in a melodramatic style that was constantly at odds with the austerity of the texts. Baritone William Stone sang with clear dramatic focus, yet seemed to miss a large measure of the pathos in Owen's poetry.
There was splendid singing, however, from the three participating choruses. Vance George's S.F. Symphony Chorus sounded mighty, capturing the poignancy of the reflective moments and coming across with awesome force in the big powerhouse numbers. There was beautiful singing from Susan McMane's San Francisco Girls Chorus. Stationed in an upper terrace, the Pacific Boychoir under the direction of Kevin Fox made ethereal sounds.
Not a perfect Requiem, perhaps, but Thursday's performance certainly allowed the work's truths to shine. When, toward the end of the piece, the baritone sang "None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress," it seemed that Britten and Owen must have been looking ahead to the 21st century.