Britten War Requiem

Author: 
Edward Greenfield

Britten War Requiem

  • War Requiem

It is specially welcome to have historic recordings like this available in the new medium of CD. Even when Simon Rattle's freshly inspired and dramatic reading appeared on EMI this dedicated performance under the composer's baton had to be the constant reference point interpretatively, and I noted that ''in many ways the earlier recording produced by Culshaw balances detail more clearly''. This is a point which comes out all the more sharply with the extra refinement of a digital transfer to CD. Culshaw with his engineer Kenneth Wilkinson, under the guidance of Britten himself, did a superb job over the six days of recording sessions at London's Kingsway Hall. Rattle in his recording follows what has become regular concert-hall practice and has the chamber group for the Wilfred Owen settings as the nucleus of the main orchestra. This original recording, with every instrument and voice positioned very precisely, has a separate chamber group for the Owen poems, placed in a quite different, much drier acoustic, an enhancement possible only in a recording and typical of Culshaw's art.
On CD, where contrasts of acoustic are so clearly established, that point is the more freshly brought out. I said of the Rattle performance how wonderful it is to hear the work as though for the first time. With inner textures made clearer on CD (just as impressively in choral pianissimos as in the fortissimo outbursts) and with brass antiphonies thrillingly conveyed, I have equally felt that with this much-loved performance too. The three soloists whom Britten had in mind are all caught at their very finest: Pears incomparable in inflecting the composer's characteristic word-setting, Fischer-Dieskau producing honeyed tones and equally clear words, Vishnevskaya bringing out the monumental quality of the Latin solos, very different from the far more personal Soderstrom on the Rattle set. The chorus is caught with bloom too, and the off-stage boys' choir has extraordinary clarity even in distant pianissimos.
What one has to note amid all this excellence is that the tape hiss is distinctly higher than in most CD transfers even of this vintage of analogue recording. The hiss emerges at the start with quite a swish, and the clarity of the digital transfer actually makes it the more apparent, a point which came out when I compared the CD with the relatively recent cassette version which Decca brought out, where with warmer, less analytical textures, the hiss was more readily covered. If you want the ultimate advantages of CD, then the Rattle with its weightier sound is excellent, for all the occasional inconsistency of balance, but this Britten recording, one which will never be superceded, remains among the most magnetic performances of British music ever put on record, and I cherish its new format.'

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