BRITTEN Choral and Orchestral Works

Author: 
Alan Blyth
Britten Hickox

BRITTEN Choral and Orchestral Works

  • War Requiem
  • Sinfonia da Requiem
  • Ballad of Heroes

When I reviewed the most recent of the sets of the War Requiem listed above, I suggested that the work's inspiration and specific sentiments evoke deep responses in its interpreters. Listening to it again, I was once more amazed at its structural integrity and its power to move even on repeated hearings. It is surely one of the two great choral masterpieces written by a British composer this century, the other being, of course, Gerontius: they share a sense of having to be composed and the feeling of complete sincerity and conviction that goes with it. The new performance confirms these propositions to the hilt, and provides yet another view of the piece, quite as valid as those of its predecessors; indeed it is perhaps the most successful performance of all. That impression owes not a little to Brian and Ralph Couzens's superb production. I don't think I have ever heard so much of the detail in the writing of both the large orchestra or the instrumental ensemble, and these are spatially separated from the singers in just the right perspective. Add to that an immediate yet not claustrophobic acoustic for the soloists and you have a well-nigh ideal recording as such.
Then Richard Hickox, renowned as a choral director, persuades his singers to prodigies of dynamic contrast and verbal acuity. His chorus doesn't surpass the efforts of that conducted by Shaw (Telarc/Conifer), but the impression is of a more refined approach without the kind of self-consciousness that just occasionally affects Rattle's choir (listen to the opening of the Dies Irae). Also, Hickox has the finest and most keenly focused boys' choir to date. As an interpretation Hickox yields little or nothing in discipline or immediacy to Rattle (EMI)—try the Hosanna in both performances. For all Rattle's electrifying immediacy throughout, I often found it was Hickox who went closer to the heart of the matter. Britten remains hors concours in dedication to his own work, but my comparisons did leave me this time with a feeling that the Decca recording, excellent as it is, begins to show its age and—like the Rattle and Shaw—occupies all of two CDs, while the Hickox adds two other substantial works.
If that doesn't influence you in favour of Hickox then maybe the work of the soloists will be the deciding factor. Heather Harper has at last recorded the 'role' she created—indeed it is her farewell to her many admirers as she has now retired. I heard her sing it in St Paul's not long ago and thought then that her peculiar accents, her inevitable shaping of so much of the part simply had to be preserved for posterity. Her perceptions are superior to those of both Haywood (Shaw) and Soderstrom (Rattle) by virtue of her longer association with the piece, and her tone shows very few signs of the advancing years. Of course, Vishnevskaya's hieratical utterance (Decca) is something unique and inimitable, but for a comprehensive understanding of what Britten wanted, Harper is hard to equal. John Shirley-Quirk has also been closely associated with the War Requiem for many years. Although already 59 when the recording was made, his voice sounds quite untouched by time and he sings with as deep a feeling as any of his rivals. What I admire most of all is the intensity and rugged strength in his singing, not quite there in any of the others—compare ''Be slowly lifted up'' in all four sets. I am amazed that we hear so little of Shirley-Quirk in concert today when he is still in this form—where is his equal as a bass-baritone in this kind of music among his juniors? Someone should now give us his Elijah.
Philip Langridge is just as compelling, with his marvellous way of lighting words, as it were, from within and that specially anguished tone of his. He isn't superior to his three counterparts, just different. In ''Move him into the sun'', Pears proves—surprisingly—the most straightforward, the least aware of verbal accentuation. Langridge, here and elsewhere, tends to be more dramatic than either Pears (Britten) or Rolfe Johnson (Shaw), though not quite so pleasing in tone as the latter. Taken on their own, without odious comparisons, I found Chandos's trio totally convincing in every aspect of their interpretations. As a whole, then, this new version just about ousts its predecessors as recommendation for this great work.
As I have stated its desirability is increased by the inclusion of two other works. In both Hickox once more comes up against the competition of his contemporary, Simon Rattle. In the case of Ballad of Heroes, they could both legitimately claim to offer the premier recording. Lewis Foreman charts the course of this uneven work's history on page 19. In his Britten biography (Dent: 1981) MK rightly calls the text and the music ''glib''. The hurry in which it was composed may explain its obvious procedures and untidy form, but nothing can excuse the doggerel written by Randall Swingler. That said, many may want to investigate the work, which does once or twice pre-echo later glories. Of the performances, that under Hickox is the more deliberate and detailed (with more incisive choral singing), Rattle's perhaps the more appropriately dramatic with the more decisive soloist (Tear), but there's little in it. Nor in their respective accounts of the much more worthwhile Sinfonia da Requiem, both recommendable for their high voltage and for a realization of Britten's early genius as an orchestrator (the influences of Berg and Mahler much to the fore). So, all round, the Chandos issue is an excellent buy.
Of the other works newly recorded on the very generously filled EMI issue, the plum is undoubtedly the Diversions for piano. The old Katchen/Britten performance, recently transferred to CD by Decca is historically interesting but the new one benefits from stereo recording and from Donohoe's marvellously light-grained account of the solo part, eagerly seconded by the orchestra. I don't care much for the extrovert, busy Britten represented by The Building of the House overture, written to open the ill-fated, 'first' Maltings, even less for Britten's last, unfinished work, Praise we great man, which doesn't seem to enhance the composer's reputation one bit. The previously issued works, the Sinfonia da Requiem apart, are also lesser Britten, but the collection as a whole, all works keenly performed, fills many gaps in the Britten discography and is welcome as such'

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