BRITTEN War Requiem

The half-century-old War Requiem live from London

Author: 
Richard Fairman

BRITTEN War Requiem

  • War Requiem

This latest recording of Britten’s War Requiem arrives almost 50 years to the day after the work’s acclaimed premiere at Coventry Cathedral. Half a century on, the initial excitement has subsided but the number of recordings on sale (over a dozen at the last count) is a measure of how fully the work has been accepted into the regular choral repertoire, creating a very competitive market.

From its barely audible opening, Gianandrea Noseda’s live performance seeks to take the audience on a journey from the edge of consciousness to the blazing fires of the battlefield. In some of the quieter passages – the hushed cadence of ‘Kyrie eleison’ especially but also ‘Quid sum miser’ and ‘Recordare’ – the soft-focus halo of sound leaves little impression beyond a distant mush (though Noseda might reasonably object that the composer ignores the score’s pianissimo markings in his recording). It takes action to galvanise this performance into life and sections such as the ‘Dies irae’ and the ‘Offertorium’ are played for all they are worth, their climaxes reinforced by the LSO’s brilliant trumpets and cannon-like timpani.

While the intensity comes and goes in the Latin Mass, the Wilfred Owen settings are consistently involving. Ian Bostridge spins a beautiful line in the tenor’s lyrical passages, though he milks ‘Move him into the sun’ excessively, squeezing the tone in a way that is lachrymose in the wrong sense. Simon Keenlyside is excellent throughout and very touching in the intimacy of Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’. Decisive and confident, the soprano Sabina Cvilak has the Slavic edge to her voice that has seemed hard-wired into the part since the incomparable Vishnevskaya.

Noseda has real strengths in these fine soloists and the high-quality playing of the LSO but the ambience of the Barbican is a drawback – not a killer, like the acoustic of Coventry Cathedral at the premiere, but rather drab, with chorus and soloists alike lacking in immediacy. I chose to make detailed comparisons with another live recording, the one conducted by Kurt Masur with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and Noseda’s keen sense of drama is preferable to the mild-mannered Masur. In almost every respect, though, Britten’s own recording remains in a class of its own.

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