RSNO / Sondergard  

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall  

four stars  

NO matter when and where it is performed, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is a work that is haunted by the circumstances of its composition and premiere, and the associated ambition of its structure.  

As an event marking Armistice celebrations in 2022, as well as a memorial concert for the RSNO’s visionary conductor Sir Alexander Gibson and his wife Lady Veronica, there are contemporary issues as well, not least the fact that the presence of a Russian soprano soloist would be as problematic now as it was in Coventry Cathedral 60 years ago.  

Both soprano and baritone for this performance were German – Susanne Bernhard and Benjamin Appl – and the tenor was the very late substitute Magnus Walker, replacing the RSNO’s contracted man Stuart Jackson, who had managed to sing, though unwell, the previous evening in Edinburgh.  

If Walker seemed a little under-powered at the start – and he has a very exposed first solo in the setting of Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth – he recovered well over the course of the work and deserves all the acclaim he received for his last-minute jump-in. He certainly looked no less well-prepared than the others, who were both quite evidently reliant on their scores but sang powerfully – Appl especially expressive at the top of his range and Bernhard demonstrating a very rich tone across all of hers.  

These concerts were conductor Thomas Sondergard’s first of the work with the RSNO, and – perhaps unsurprisingly, given his work in his native Scandinavia – he took a very operatic approach. The RSNO Chorus, now directed by Stephen Doughty, were seated at the start and, like Patrick Barrett’s Junior choir, off stage on the balcony, were required to demonstrate a wide dynamic range in their performance.  

The balance Sondergard sought brought dividends later, but the opening sections – Requiem Aeternam and Dies Irae – lost some of the early energy derived from the contrast between the choral Latin text and male soloists’ poetry settings, and between the main orchestral ensemble, led by Lena Zeliszewska, and the smaller chamber band, led by Maya Iwabuchi.  

But if the more familiar musical narrative initially seemed lacking, the conductor’s seamless storytelling came into its own as the choirs were allowed to sing out and the soloists came into their own. Walker delivered a very moving Dona nobis pacem and his partnership with Appl on Strange Meeting and their dialogue with Bernhard and the choruses in the Libera Me led to a spontaneous contemplative silence in the hall before the eruption of applause.  

The RSNO presented this performance in a rich context, preceded by a presentation on war photography by The Herald’s David Pratt and including the introduction on stage of painter Gerard Burns, under commission to produce a work for the orchestra which will be inspired by the War Requiem, and for which he is seeking audience input.