RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
War Requiem, Op. 66 (1962)
Erin Wall (soprano); Mark Padmore (tenor); Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone)
CBSO Chorus; CBSO Youth Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, 30 May, 2012. Coventry Cathedral
Director of Photography: Nyika Janscó. TV Director: Ute Freudel
English, French, German and Spanish subtitles
Region Code 0; Picture Format 16:9. Sound format: PCM Stereo. Dolby 5.1 DVD Format NTSC
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101659 [97:00]
This performance of War Requiem was given in Coventry Cathedral, the building for which it was written. It took place fifty years to the day since the work received its première there, when it was conducted jointly by Meredith Davies and the composer. The orchestra then, as in this performance, was the CBSO though for the première members of The Melos Ensemble provided the chamber orchestra; fifty years on that task was entrusted to the CBSO principals. Once again we had an English tenor and a German baritone with Mark Padmore and Hanno Müller-Brachmann taking the roles created by Pears and Fischer-Dieskau. Kristine Opolais was to have sung the soprano role in this performance but she was indisposed and the Canadian soprano, Erin Wall, deputised. Fifty years ago the CBSO choruses hadn’t been founded but they turned out in full force to mark the anniversary.
I had the good fortune to be present in Coventry Cathedral to review this concert for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard. It was an unforgettable and moving evening and viewing this film of the concert brings it all back. The film also adds a significant dimension in that one can hear the performance in a better balanced way and in greater detail thanks to the microphones. One significant beneficiary of that is Erin Wall, who was somewhat backwardly placed in the front rows of the choir on the evening and it was asking a great deal for her to project over a long distance and over the top of Britten’s full orchestra. Incidentally, very deliberately I have not re-read my review of the concert as I wanted to come to this DVD with ears unbiased by anything except memory.
Let it be said at once that the performance is absolutely superb. I’m sure everyone concerned was caught up not just in the music but also in the occasion and was inspired to give of their very best. At the end of the performance, as the ovation commences, it’s clear that Mark Padmore, for one, had been deeply moved. Mind you, that’s scarcely surprising for he had just given a performance of spellbinding intensity.
I recall that I was deeply impressed by him on the night but my seat, though only a few rows from the front, was right across the other side of the nave - in front of the percussion. So though I could hear him very well I couldn’t see him too clearly. It’s evident from the film, as it was from his singing on the night, that he’s absolutely caught up in the performance and he delivers the Owen poems with great feeling. Actually, though, one of the most telling moments comes when he’s not singing. During the baritone solo in ‘Strange Meeting’, as Müller-Brachmann gets to the lines where he reveals himself as the German soldier killed by his English adversary, the camera is on the German baritone in left profile. Behind him we see Padmore, who is standing next to him, turn and look at him intently as he sings those words. It’s a telling and heart-stopping moment and a gesture done with no artifice on Padmore’s part.
Prior to that Padmore’s contribution to ‘Strange Meeting’ has been exceptionally fine. Indeed, both male soloists rise to new heights of eloquence in these pages, combining to make the setting an enthralling and emotionally draining one and from which we all need the beneficent release of “Let us sleep now”. Earlier, Padmore is as superb as I’d remembered in ’At a Calvary near the Ancre’ (Agnus Dei). He’s plangently expressive in the outer sections of this poem and vividly bitter of utterance in the central section, beginning at “Near Golgotha strolls many a priest.” I vividly recall how wonderfully controlled was his delivery of the rising phrase that ends this movement: I’m thrilled to have this moment preserved through the recording. Another pinnacle in his performance is ‘Futility’ (“Move him into the sun.”) He’s vividly communicative here, his plangent yet steely tone and great care for the words, which he enunciates with great clarity, combining to telling effect. Here, and elsewhere, Padmore is deeply involved and involving. His is a magnificent and moving reading of the tenor part.
I was very taken with Hanno Müller-Brachmann’s performance on the night but, if anything, I’m even more impressed by what I see and hear on this DVD. I admire the full, cultured tone and the intensity that he brings to ‘Bugles Sang’ - and to everything else he does. He’s imposing in ‘Sonnet on seeing a piece of our artillery brought into action’ (“Be slowly lifted up…”) and distinguishes himself in both of the duets with the tenor, especially in ‘Strange meeting’. His English pronunciation is excellent - as is his diction, just like Mark Padmore’s. Inevitably, perhaps, his English is slightly accented and this - and, even more so, the sheer quality of his voice - put me in mind on several occasions of the great creator of this part, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Though Müller-Brachmann’s interpretation is very much his own I can pay him no higher compliment than to make the comparison.
I can hear Erin Wall much better on the DVD than I could on the evening of the concert and she sounds very good. On the night she seemed to be making a great effort to project in ‘Liber scriptus’ - not surprisingly, given the nature of the music she has to sing at this point. By the way, that’s not a criticism at all, just a statement of fact. However, the microphones confirm her command at this point and also her dramatic presence at the start of the Sanctus. My memory is that the lighter scoring and softer dynamics of the Benedictus were to her advantage and on this recording we can hear her giving a lovely performance of this section. Unless you are a singer with the histrionic power of a Vishnevskaya the soprano role must be a massive challenge and Miss Wall, though not a Slavic diva, does an excellent job.
At the première the Festival Chorus, formed specially for the purpose - and to perform The Beatitudes by Bliss - were simply not up to the challenges of Britten’s score. No such problems for the CBSO Chorus, who sing superbly throughout. Passages where they are particularly impressive include the Recordare, which the sopranos and altos put across with all the feeling demanded by Andris Nelsons, and the fugues - both the loud one and its softer reprise - in the Offertorium. The ‘Hosanna’ in the Sanctus is exultant and majestic while the choir’s contribution to such key passages as the Dies Irae, the Libera me and the concluding “Let us sleep now” is thrilling and utterly committed. A special word of praise, too, for the contingent of girls from the CBSO Youth Chorus. They were positioned in the area of the choir stalls - where all the performers were assembled for the very first performance - so the audience had their backs to them. Their singing is superb: at all times they are clear, incisive and completely accurate. That much I could remember from the performance. What I couldn’t know, because I could only hear them on the night and not see them, is that they sang everything from memory, which is a significant feat. Every time they sing their eyes never stray away from their conductor, Simon Halsey, and their concentration is unwavering. Frankly, they put many adult choirs to shame in this respect. No wonder they sound so good.
The orchestral contributions are on the same exalted level. The main CBSO plays superbly throughout. The playing is incisive - no mean feat in such a reverberant acoustic - and though the quiet playing is consistently excellent it’s the sheer unforced power of the playing - when required - that particularly impresses. The group of orchestral principals who form the chamber orchestra play their demanding parts with stylish virtuosity, matching the male vocal soloists’ sensitivity.
Presiding over everything is Andris Nelsons. His direction is hugely impressive. This score matters to him and he conducts it with care and passion; witness, for example, how he sculpts the Recordare. Some of his tempi are on the broad side. For example the reprise of ‘Dies irae’ that follows “Be slowly lifted up” is very deliberate in pace - a notch slower, I fancy, than when the material was first heard - and it’s punched out with defiant weight. Even more daring is the slow speed at which he begins the Libera me. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this taken so broadly. At this pace the muffled drums at the start are even more menacing and threatening than usual. Nelsons gets away with the broad speed - just - through sheer force of musical personality and he builds this section magnificently; the power and intensity increase along with the speed and the climax, when it arrives, is truly shattering. I recall that on the night this climax was apocalyptic and the film can’t quite do justice to what I remember experiencing - but it comes pretty close. I wonder if one or two broad speeds were influenced by the cathedral’s acoustic: it will be interesting to see if Nelsons repeats these speeds when he conducts the same forces in the work in the better acoustics of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall on May 28 next year. He’s in total command of the score and has all the performers on their mettle. I was completely convinced by his riveting interpretation that night in Coventry Cathedral and revisiting the performance on film has had the same effect.
At the end the audience paid the work and the performers the greatest possible compliment: a profound and sustained silence. I realised it was long at the time but now I’ve been able to time it: a remarkable 86 seconds before the applause broke out. That, as much as the ovation itself, is testimony to the remarkable experience that the audience had just had.
I have one regret about this film. It’s a very fine film of the performance; the camera work is excellent and the selection of shots is always relevant. However, I’d hoped for more. Coventry Cathedral is a remarkable building. It is dedicated to peace and reconciliation and even those resistant to modern art and architecture cannot fail to be moved by how successfully Sir Basil Spence’s design links the new building to the ruins of its old, bomb-destroyed predecessor. Not only is the building itself a remarkable modern design but also it contains within it many magnificent and provocative works of twentieth-century art; sculptures, statues, stained glass windows and Graham Sutherland’s mighty tapestry of Christ in Majesty. I had hoped that during the performance the director would have interleaved some shots of the building and its art. Not only could this have been highly relevant to the music but, surely, of interest to the many people who will view this film but who have never been to Coventry. A director such as Brian Large would have done this as a matter of course, I’m sure, but the makers of this film have chosen to focus on the performers exclusively, apart from a few tantalising exterior pictures at the very start and end of the film. What we see of the cathedral’s interior is incidental; for instance there are many engrossing shots of Nelsons taken by a camera in front of him and in most of these the magnificent Sutherland tapestry can be seen in the background. As I say, it’s an excellent film of the performance but I think a major opportunity has been missed.
It’s also disappointing that no extra filmed features about, say, the work or the location have been included though there is a good booklet note by Michael Foster, the author of a recent, valuable book about War Requiem (review).
However, those are presentational cavils. They should not and cannot detract from the importance of this release as a major addition to the discography of War Requiem. As a performance it is a major achievement by all concerned and deeply moving. War Requiem is an uneven work but any issues as to its stature are simply swept aside in the face of a performance of such accomplishment and eloquence as this. It was a privilege and an unforgettable experience to be in Coventry Cathedral on 31 May 2012. This DVD is a worthy reminder of that occasion and I’m delighted that many more people can now share that experience.
A distinguished addition to the War Requiem discography. As a performance deeply moving and a major achievement.
Discography & review index: Britten's War Requiem