Britten's War Requiem
The Gramophone Choice
Coupled with Sinfonia da Requiem, Op 20. Ballad of Heroes, Op 14
Heather Harper sop Philip Langridge, Martyn Hill tens John Shirley-Quirk bar St Paul’s Cathedral Choir; London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Richard Hickox
Chandos CHAN8983/4; CHSA5007 (125' · DDD/DSD · T/t) Buy from Amazon
Britten’s War Requiem is the composer’s most public statement of his pacifism. The work is cast in six movements and calls for massive forces: full chorus, soprano soloist and full orchestra evoke mourning, supplication and guilty apprehension; boys’ voices with chamber organ, the passive calm of a liturgy which points beyond death; tenor and baritone soloists with chamber orchestra, the passionate outcry of the doomed victims of war. This challenger to the composer’s classic Decca version offers up-to-date recording, excellently managed to suggest the various perspectives of the vast work, and possibly the most convincing execution of the choral writing to date under the direction of a conductor, Richard Hickox, who was a past master at obtaining the best from a choir in terms of dynamic contrast and vocal emphasis. Add to that his empathy with all that the work has to say and you’ve a cogent reason for acquiring this version even before you come to the excellent work of the soloists. In her recording swansong, Harper at last commits to disc a part she created. It’s right that her special accents and impeccable shaping of the soprano’s contribution have been preserved for posterity.
Shirley-Quirk, always closely associated with the piece, sings the three baritone solos and duets with rugged strength and dedicated intensity. He’s matched by Langridge’s compelling and insightful reading, with his notes and words more dramatic than Pears’s approach. The inclusion of two additional pieces, neither of them short, helps to give this version an added advantage even if the Ballad of Heroes is one of Britten’s slighter works.
Galina Vishnevskaya sop Peter Pears ten Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bar Simon Preston org Bach Choir; Highgate School Choir; Melos Ensemble; London Symphony Orchestra / Benjamin Britten
Decca 475 7511DOR2 (132' · DDD · T/t) Recorded 1963. Buy from Amazon
Decca has used the most recent digital and Cedar technology to improve the original sound, under the overall supervision of veteran technician James Lock. This is one of the great performances of recording history. As an imaginative bonus, Decca gives us the first issue of a long rehearsal tape made by the producer John Culshaw without Britten’s approval. When Culshaw presented it to the composer on his 50th birthday, Britten was ‘appalled’, considering it 'an unauthorised invasion of a territory exclusively his own and his performers', as Donald Mitchell relates in the booklet. Now Mitchell believes that we should be allowed ‘to assess the tape as a contribution to our knowledge of him [Britten] as a performer and interpreter of his own music and to our understanding of the War Requiem itself’. Refer to Culshaw's version of events here.
Throughout this fascinating document you hear evidence of Britten’s vision of his own music, his astonishing ear for timbre and intimate details, above all his wonderful encouragement of all his forces, culminating in his heart-warming words of thanks at the end of the sessions, not to mention his tension-breaking humour and a couple of sharp comments from Vishnevskaya. The merit of this groundbreaking performance is that it so arrestingly conveys Britten’s intentions. We’re lucky to have not only Britten’s irreplaceable reading refurbished, but also his commentary suggested by the rehearsal sequences.
Stefania Woytowicz sop Peter Pears ten Hans Wilbrink bar Wandsworth School Boys’ Choir; Melos Ensemble / Benjamin Britten; New Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus / Carlo Maria Giulini
BBC Legends BBCL4046-2 (79‘ · ADD · T/t) Recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall, London, April 6,1969. Buy from Amazon
This performance is a revelation. As the authoritative note makes clear, Britten and Giulini had a mutual respect for and an admiration of each other’s work. Here they combine to give a performance that’s a true Legend, as this BBC series has it. Giulini’s reading is as dramatic and viscerally exciting as any rival version. The music leaps from the page new-minted in his histrionically taut hands, the rhythmic tension at times quite astonishing. For instance, the sixth movement, ‘Libera me’, is simply earth-shattering in its effect, every bar, every word, every instrument sung and played to the hilt – and so it is throughout, with the peculiar, and in this case peculiarly right, acoustics of the Albert Hall adding its own measure of verité to the inspired occasion.
The performance of the New Philharmonia forces, under the man who was at the time their favourite conductor after Klemperer, is at once technically assured and wholly dedicated. Only perhaps the classic Decca recording comes near equalling it in this respect, and that doesn’t quite have the electrifying atmosphere found on this astonishing occasion. Nor have the Wandsworth Boys’ Choir, placed up in the Hall’s gallery, been surpassed.
The soloists also seem to realise the special quality of the occasion. Pears surpasses even his own creator’s reading on the Decca set, singing with the sustained concentration and vocal acuity that were so much his hallmarks in Britten’s music. The soprano Stefania Woytowicz, who at the time made something of a speciality of this work, has very much the vocal timbre of Vishnevskaya, for whom the part was written, and perhaps a shade more sensitivity. She’s certainly the best soprano on any version, and Wilbrink comes near being the best baritone. He may not be quite as varied or subtle as Decca’s Fischer-Dieskau, nor as confident as Chandos’s Shirley-Quirk, but he has a more beautiful voice than either, with a plangency in his tone that’s so right for this music.Most of all it’s the sum of the parts that so impresses here, as does the truthfulness of the sound, preferable to that on the Chandos set.
Annette Dasch sop James Taylor ten Christian Gerhaher bar Aurelius Sängerknaben Calw; Stuttgart Festival Ensemble / Robin Engelen, Helmuth Rilling
Hänssler Classic CD98 507 (83’ · DDD/DSD · T/t) Recorded live 2007. Buy from Amazon
A wonderful performance and a most moving experience. Critically, one must keep the experience (subjective) as distant from the relatively objective facts of the performance as possible: on this occasion that wasn’t very easy, or even desirable. Certainly all the elements in this complex organisation are well served. The soloists are admirable, Annette Dasch pure in tone, powerfully concentrated in style, James Taylor a tenor whose voice can respond to what is gentle and compassionate in his music as to the unsparing harshness, and Christian Gerhaher authoritative, humane and (like the others) entirely firm in his singing. The choir is fine in blend, precision and enunciation; the boys’ choir, too, ideal in its embodiment of unsanctimonious sanctity. For the chamber ensemble and full orchestra, only admiration, as for the recording’s producer and engineer who have dealt so well with the difficult task of keeping these elements distinct and unifying them at the same time. Above all, we must honour their conductor, whose mature guidance is everywhere in evidence.
It’s the sense of unity that has distinguished this experience of the War Requiem most especially. Rarely has it moved with such logic. That seems a strange word to use in the description of what was so deeply emotional, yet it’s right. For the first time the work moved with the single-minded force of a geometrical theorem. Darkness and light, war and peace, noise and quiet are the unifying opposites throughout. The selection and sequence of Owen’s poems are so well-fitting that the line – can you call it ‘of argument’? – is unbroken and all goes forward to the almost painful easement of ‘Let us sleep now’. Do try it for yourself.
Phyllis Curtin sop Nicholas Di Virgilio ten Tom Krause bar Chorus Pro Musica; Columbus Boychoir; Boston Symphony Orchestra / Erich Leinsdorf
VAI VAIDVD4429 (89’ · PAL · 4:3 black and white · 1.0 · 0). Recorded live at the Tanglewood Festival, July 27, 1963. Buy from Amazon
‘It makes criticism impertinent,’ thought Peter Shaffer of the War Requiem, and for all Stravinsky’s grousing that any such criticism would be ‘as if one had failed to stand up for God Save the Queen’ the piece still carries as much sense of occasion as it evidently did at this, its American premiere in 1963, a year after its fraught first performance. What a contrast. The alfresco acoustic of the Tanglewood Music Shed may have been no more favourable in its way than that of Coventry Cathedral, though, you might think miraculously, there is no trace of indistinctness or inadequacy about the stereo sound preserved by WGBH Boston to accompany its telecast.
Nor is there about the performance, which was evidently prepared with all the care that such an occasion merited. The hero of the hour is pre-eminently Leinsdorf, who picked the work as the centrepiece of his first season as Tanglewood’s music director. Whatever else the War Requiem stands for, its performance here serves as a conducting masterclass. Leinsdorf stands ramrod-straight, no baton, and his timing and pacing are equally impeccable, honed by his years in the pit at the Met. When he raises his left hand, infrequently, it is either to conduct the chamber ensemble to his left or to indicate ‘too loud’. When both arms are aloft and the eyes blaze at the climax of the Sanctus, on the upbeat to the ‘Hosanna’, the response is electrifying, as though all heaven’s angels had joined the already excellent Chorus Pro Musica.
It would be easy but misleading to equate the unyielding body language with the interpretation: a strict, dry-eyed tempo for the ‘Lacrymosa’ makes all the more sense when it eventually contrasts so poignantly with the tenor’s desperate cry of ‘Was it for this the clay grew tall’, as though the ancient liturgy was cracking under the strain of expressive necessity.
The booklet-note accurately summarises Nicholas Di Virgilio’s contribution as having ‘a robust and honest American style’, though he rises to the challenge in the brief but crucial Agnus Dei and is less troubled by the passaggio between D and F than many Britten tenors past and present. As Di Virgilio does elsewhere, the Finnish baritone Tom Krause perhaps responds more to Britten’s setting than to Owen’s poetry in ‘Be slowly lifted up’, though the trumpet obbligato is something of a highlight, and the singer ratchets up the tension for the apocalyptic recapitulation of the ‘Dies irae’. Phyllis Curtin’s soprano matches Leinsdorf for unobtrusive clarity – and she never scoops, despite every Verdian invitation to do so. A one-off event invites excuses for slips of all kinds, but there are none, and the breathless hush from the 11,000-strong audience suggests that the stoic power latent in Britten’s testament affected them as it might anyone watching almost 50 years hence.