BRITTEN War Requiem
As with his previous recordings of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts (11/11) and Mendelssohn’s Elijah (11/12), Paul McCreesh brings together his British and Polish forces to create an army of 350 musicians in Britten’s War Requiem. Any concern that this could result in an unwieldy performance can be set aside. The recording, made in Watford Colosseum (though two other venues – Birmingham and Oxford – are listed in the booklet), is very well judged. The Latin sections of the Mass have a warm blend that lies somewhere between the resonance of a cathedral and recording-studio clarity. The seven choirs have been forged into a high-class, responsive whole and McCreesh leads them in a natural performance – speeds are never rushed or flagging, and the music breathes.
For the Wilfred Owen settings, the performers are placed so that McCreesh’s relatively light-voiced soloists, John Mark Ainsley and Christopher Maltman, are able to sing with conversational intimacy, while letting through plenty of instrumental detail (listen to the gently lapping waters of the woodwind in ‘Bugles sang’). Ainsley is almost unbearably tender in ‘Move him into the sun’ and Maltman, apart from a few moments when he sounds pushed, is thoughtful and restrained. With Susan Gritton proving a clever choice for the soprano soloist, not imperious like Vishnevskaya but pitching the intervals of the ‘Lacrimosa’ to perfection, there are no weak links. All combine in an impressive ‘Libera me’, which rises to a truly cataclysmic climax.
The Supraphon set offers a pair of previously unreleased live performances under Karel An∂erl, an early champion of Britten’s music. The Czech premiere of the War Requiem from 1966 is raw but urgent, galvanising the orchestra and chorus in music that must have seemed challenging at the time. The Spring Symphony is sung in a Czech translation, which adds a certain piquancy, but the chorus sounds on the edge and the recorded balance is haphazard. Collectors will be pleased to encounter leading Czech singers Nad∆Ωda Kniplová and Beno Blachut among the soloists but this set is strictly one for the historical category.
Recommendations for the War Requiem are getting more interesting. A choice between the new McCreesh, warmly satisfying, and Noseda on LSO Live, exaggerated but fitfully brilliant, is difficult, but I would prefer McCreesh thanks to his superior recording quality. Do not forget, too, that an all-star recording is on its way from Pappano on Warner (formerly EMI). As for Britten’s own War Requiem, what can one say? It still stands as one of those ‘untouchable’ recordings that will probably never be surpassed.