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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
War Requiem, Op. 66 (1962) [84:05]
Susan Gritton (soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Christopher Maltman (baritone),
Wrocław Philharmonic Choir, Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme, Chetham’s Chamber Choir, North West Youth Chorale, Taplow Youth Choir, Ulster Youth Chamber Choir, Trebles of the Choir of New College Oxford
Gabrieli Consort and Players/Paul McCreesh
rec. 26 February 2012, Birmingham Town Hall, England, 5/9 January 2013, Watford Colosseum, England, 15 March 2013, Church of St. Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford, England
Full Latin and English texts with English translation included.
SIGNUM RECORDS SIGCD340 [37:20 + 46:45]

War Requiem [80:05]
Anna Netrebko (soprano), Ian Bostridge (tenor), Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Orchestra, Coro e Voci Bianche dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Roma/Sir Antonio Pappano
rec. 25-26, 28-29 June 2013, Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, Italy
Full Latin and English texts with English translation included.
WARNER CLASSICS 6154482 [80:05]
 
War Requiem [87:22]
Emily Magee (soprano), Mark Padmore (tenor), Christian Gerhaher (baritone),
Tölzer Knabenchor, Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live 13-15 March, Philharmonie im Gasteig, München, Germany
Full Latin and English texts. No English translation of the Latin is included.
BR KLASSIK 900120 [48:20 + 39:02]

As this year 2013 marks the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth performances of his War Requiem are being given in satisfying numbers. One can see how the commission would have greatly appealed to Britten as, right from his early schooldays, he found all violence abhorrent. With the outbreak of war looming Britten left England for North America between the years 1939 and 1942. As an active pacifist during World War Two, upon his return to England, he refused to be conscripted into the British Armed Forces and as a conscientious objector had to appear before a tribunal in 1942. Coventry Cathedral was destroyed by German bombing in 1940 and in 1958 during construction work on a new Cathedral he was commissioned to write a work for the consecration ceremony which must have been powerfully motivating. In response Britten wrote the War Requiem,considered by many to be a masterwork of the genre, a massive six movement score for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, chorus and a boy’s choir with a full orchestra, a chamber orchestra and organ with the forces divided into three distinct groups. This statement of Britten’s fervent pacifist convictions, possibly combined with an element of his survivor’s guilt for not being part of the war effort, comprises a setting of the traditional Latin text of the Missa pro Defunctis combined with verse from nine anti-war poems by the English First World War poet Wilfred Owen. The soprano soloist, choir and the boys’ choir are allocated the Latin text with the tenor and baritone singing the Wilfred Owen verse that serves as commentary. Michael Tippett, a friend of Britten and fellow pacifist who served a prison sentence at Wormwood Scrubs as a conscientious objector, described the War Requiem as “the one musical masterwork we possess with overt pacifist meanings.”
 
The première of the War Requiem was given at Coventry Cathedral in May 1962. To further emphasise the spirit of reconciliation Britten had originally intended his soloists to be from Russia, Britain and Germany: namely Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Unfortunately the Soviet authorities prevented Vishnevskaya singing at the first performance opening the way for Belfast-born Heather Harper to stand in at short notice.
 
As their tribute to the Britten centenary, conductors Paul McCreesh, Sir Antonio Pappano and Mariss Jansons have each directed new recorded performances of the War Requiem.
 
For the release on Signum Records the conductor is Paul McCreesh, founder and artistic director of the London based Gabrieli Consort and Players. For his three soloists McCreesh has engaged an experienced all-English team of Susan Gritton (soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor) and Christopher Maltman (baritone). In addition to the singers of the Gabrieli Consort for his choral forces McCreesh has brought together the Wrocław Philharmonic Choir and the Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme: Chetham’s Chamber Choir, the North West Youth Chorale, the Taplow Youth Choir and the Ulster Youth Chamber Choir. Also utilised on the recording are the trebles of the Choir of New College Oxford. With one hundred and eighty four singers in total this large choir groups a mix of professional and amateur performers and maintains the Anglo/Polish artistic collaboration that McCreesh has established in recent years. Employing a total of one hundred and three players McCreesh has substantially augmented the number of his Gabrieli Players and in addition there is a separate chamber orchestra that includes the Carducci Quartet. I note that the recording was made in 2013 under studio conditions, without any live element, across the three locations Watford Colosseum, Birmingham Town Hall and the Church of St. Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford. McCreesh’s large choral forces sing with enthusiasm and commitment, and given that they are made up of several groups their unity is especially notable. The large orchestra and chamber orchestra give sympathetic performances with the brass of the main orchestra sounding especially impressive. I loved the sound of the twelve trebles of the New College Oxford: fresh, alert and committed. McCreesh’s trio of soloists is well matched too. The tenor John Mark Ainsley displays impressive tonal shading and clear diction. The warm, medium-dark tone of baritone Christopher Maltman is expressive and sincere. Soprano Susan Gritton also inspires with her bright clarity and forthright delivery. With his satisfying choice of tempi McCreesh manages to keep everything together in an efficient manner maintaining convincing forward momentum. All-round this is a splendid performance of clarity, polish and precision but without the raw power and emotional intensity generated by the Pappano and Jansons accounts. The Signum engineers provide cool and vividly clear sound, well balanced too. Congratulations are also in order for the highly comprehensive booklet notes and fascinating array of photographs complete with sung texts and English translation of the Latin. 

For his Warner Classics recording Sir Antonio Pappano has turned to the Orchestra, Coro e Voci Bianche dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia from Rome with whom Pappano has been musical director since 2005. Pappano’s chosen soloists - a stellar trio - are headed by opera stars Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, American baritone Thomas Hampson also well-known English tenor Ian Bostridge. Under studio conditions the recording was made in 2013 at the Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome. A couple of months after making the recording Pappano and his Roman orchestra and chorus performed the score to great acclaim at this summer’s Salzburg Festival. Pappano is highly assured with his large forces adopting speeds that feel broad and with a timing that means the work can be accommodated on one disc. In a powerful performance, high on vitality, the amount of drama that Pappano extracts is impressive with the brass and percussion achieving a full imposing sound. The exuberant choral forces are full of character and sincerity and maintain praiseworthy unity. Unlike McCreesh and Jansons who use boy trebles, Pappano’s wonderfully fresh-sounding children’s group is made up of girls as well as boys. I’m not sure how often these Roman forces have performed this score but they appear extremely comfortable with the Latin text, as one might expect, and with the onerous demands of the writing. Pappano’s trio of soloists performs with rather mixed results. The voice of tenor Ian Bostridge can be an acquired taste. In this work, that he knows intimately having sung it over sixty times, he reminds me of Peter Pears. Bostridge’s bright tone is exceptionally clear and he performs with unerring expression. Classy operatic bass Thomas Hampson is in complete control, rock-steady, vital with a clear timbre. By contrast in this repertoire Netrebko seems somewhat out of sorts with the Latin texts. It seems she was ill for the main recording with her voice patched in later. She feels a touch unsteady, grabbing at the high notes, sounding shrill at times. Overall this is a fiercely powerful account, persuasively performed although it doesn’t have the polish of McCreesh and nor quite the moving penetration of Jansons. Excellent well balanced sound quality with a wide dynamic range has been provided. For this review I have the pre-release copy of the CD but I am assured that full texts with English translations of the Latin will be included in the finished item.
 
On the BR Klassik label the Mariss Jansons account with the Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks was recorded live across three concerts given at the Munich Philharmonie in March 2013. I was fortunate to have reported from the second of these three concerts and I found the performance quite stunning leaving a considerable impression. Jansons’ excellent trio of soloists with the famous Tölzer Knabenchor all provide admirable contributions. Maestro Jansons positioned his soloists close to his podium, the chamber orchestra to his left/front of the stage and one could hear but not see the boys’ choir. In this live recording I was struck by how adept Jansons and his well prepared forces were with Britten’s tough harmonies and rhythms drawing a sharply positive response. Jansons’ chosen speeds feel judicious, providing a moving performance of splendid expressive contrasts that combine to real dramatic effect. Superbly coached by chorus master Michael Gläser the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks is on tip-top form evincing a real feeling for the Latin texts and the Tölzer Knabenchor sound fresh and expressive. Jansons is a master with large forces and directs throughout with assured control. I remain delighted by the contributions of the three excellent soloists who display well contrasted voices. London-born tenor Mark Padmore knows this work well and is highly effective with especially clear diction and he varies his tone splendidly with steadfast control. Christian Gerhaher is one of the finest baritones around today and his performance is movingly expressive, displaying splendid tonal shading. The playing of the chamber group of musicians in their steadfast accompaniment to the pair of male soloists is thoroughly adept. American Emily Magee is a bright-toned soprano with a noticeable if not too obtrusive vibrato. A touch unsteady initially, her projection improves steadily as the work progresses and her sincerity for the text is unmistakeable. The sound quality of this live account from the Philharmonie is first class serving Jansons’ performance well. Full texts are included but no English translation of the Latin. 

Of these three excellent recordings of the Britten War Requiem I found the Mariss Jansons live Munich account the most compelling. Without a weak link in his chosen groups of musicians he establishes unwavering close control over his forces and generates considerable emotional intensity. Responding powerfully and with conviction the singers penetrate deep to the heart of the texts which emphasise the futility of war.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews
Jansons: John Quinn
McCreesh: John Quinn ~~ Paul Corfield Godfrey ~~ Simon Thompson
Pappano: John Quinn

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