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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
War Requiem, Op. 66
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.
WARNER CLASSICS 6154482 [80:07]
 
War Requiem
Emily Magee (soprano); Mark Padmore (tenor); Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Tölzer Knabenchor; Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 13-15 March 2013, Philharmonie im Gasteig, München
Latin and English texts and German translation included
BR KLASSIK 900120 [48:20 + 39:02]

Britten’s War Requiem is certainly receiving a lot of attention from the record companies in his centenary year. Hot on the heels of Paul McCreesh’s very fine recording (review) come these new ones. One is from Sir Antonio Pappano and his Roman chorus and orchestra and was recorded, I think, under studio conditions. The other is by Mariss Jansons and is the product of live performances. This attention is entirely understandable - and welcome - but I hope it won’t lead to the work being comparatively overlooked in 2014 when we shall mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I.
 
By coincidence - and a pleasing one, so far as I’m concerned - these two versions have as their tenor soloists the two singers who, in my humble opinion, are the best I’ve ever heard in this role - and in saying that I don’t overlook Peter Pears. Both Mark Padmore and Ian Bostridge can be heard in earlier recordings - both of them live. Bostridge is the tenor soloist in Gianandrea Noseda’s compelling 2011 account on LSO Live (review) while Padmore appears in the unforgettable 50th anniversary performance conducted by Andris Nelsons in Coventry Cathedral (review).
 
Perhaps I should start with a few general comments. Firstly, though I’ve made some comparisons between the two versions - and, indeed, between these newcomers and the Noseda and McCreesh versions - these have been far from as extensive as I’d have liked. This is because BR Klassik have followed Signum’s example (McCreesh) in allocating each movement of the work just one track. Warner have split Pappano’s recording into 21 tracks - LSO Live (Noseda) provide 26. I doubt if reviewers are the only listeners who like to make the occasional comparison so I wish record companies would gives these decisions a little more thought. The recorded sound on the Jansons version is closer and rather more immediate than on the Pappano disc - I played both versions without making any adjustments whatsoever to my equipment controls. This may be due to the fact that the Jansons performance was taken down live. His more present sound produces gains and losses. On the positive side there’s greater clarity at times - such as in the hushed reprise of the ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ fugue - but the wider dynamic range accorded to Pappano gives his performance an extra touch of mystery and atmosphere at times - the very opening and close of the work, for example. Another point at which the difference in sound is quite pronounced is at the start of the ‘Libera me’ where the ghostly dead march is all but inaudible in Pappano’s recording and more pronounced under Jansons. I ought to say that some may find the wide dynamic range of the Pappano recording too much of a good thing though I find it thrilling and atmospheric. To judge by the BR Klassik booklet photograph Emily Magee was placed at the front of the platform to Jansons’ right - with the male soloists on his left. It sounds to me as if Anna Netrebko was also positioned at the front for the Warner recording; here all three soloists seem to be on the right of the sound-stage. I mention this only because it’s often the case that the soprano is placed with the chorus both in performances and on recordings, as I believe was the case on Britten’s own recording, for instance; I prefer that arrangement.
 
Both conductors have excellent choirs and orchestras at their disposal. I suspect that both choirs are smaller than the combined Anglo-Polish choir that sings for McCreesh and perhaps smaller also than Noseda’s LSO Chorus. However, I’m sure that Jansons, and maybe Pappano also, has a chorus of professional singers. Both choirs make a strong contribution in the big moments but also offer fine quiet singing - Pappano’s choir has the edge in that respect. Following in the score, I noted how much attention is paid to Britten’s dynamics by both choirs though, once again, I’d give Pappano’s choir the palm in this respect.
 
On both recordings the orchestral parts are splendidly played with both chamber orchestras providing deft and accomplished support to the respective pairs of male singers. One thing that slightly inclines me to favour Pappano - and this is a slight point - is the unexaggerated but telling presence given to the main orchestra’s bass drum at several points in the score: Pappano’s horns and bass drum sound absolutely thrilling in the ‘Hosannas’ at the end of the Sanctus and again at the end of the Benedictus.
 
When it comes to the soloists I do have one definite preference: I like Anna Netrebko (Pappano) more than the American soprano, Emily Magee (Jansons). Several commentators have pointed out similarities between War Requiem and Verdi’s Requiem. Arguably, one of the main similarities is that the soprano role calls for a true Verdian soprano. Both these sopranos have strong Verdian credentials and both make telling contributions to their respective recordings. However, two things swing me in favour of Miss Netrebko. One is that in her first solo, ‘Liber scriptus’, Emily Magee rather overdoes the portamenti in my view. Some use of this technique is completely appropriate but I think we have too much of a good thing here. Netrebko is to be preferred. Miss Netrebko also scores, in the Benedictus where I find her more gentle and touching than Miss Magee. At several other key points in the score - not least the Sanctus - where an imperious style is called for both sopranos deliver.
 
When it comes to the baritones we are spoiled for choice. Both have recorded the work before, though I have heard neither recording. Gerhaher appears on a 2007 recording conducted by Helmuth Rilling (review). Hampson is on a New York recording conducted by Kurt Masur (Teldec 17115 • Warner Apex 2564 659416). Recently I have read one or two reviews of performances by Thomas Hampson that have suggested that his voice may be starting to wear a little at the bottom and top of his register. If that’s so it might be expected in a singer who, by coincidence, celebrated his 58th birthday during the sessions for this recording. However, I hear no evidence of wear in his singing on this recording. What I do hear is singing of uncommon intelligence and sensitivity to words; not for nothing is Hampson one of the great art-song exponents of his generation. Time and again I relished a little nuance of tone colouring or word emphasis - nothing showy or jarring but just sufficient to put an interesting inflection into Owen’s lines, proving that Hampson has thought deeply about them - as, clearly, all four of the male soloists have done. Sample, for example, how sorrowful and gently eloquent Hampson is in ‘Bugles sang’. In a very different vein he’s bitter and dramatic in ‘Be slowly lifted up’, where the timpani register much more tellingly than on the McCreesh disc. Admire but be moved by his bleakness in ‘After the blast of lightening’. Fittingly, he is at his inspired best in ‘Strange meeting’: at first he’s desolate of utterance before becoming more anguished from cue 122 in the score (‘I went hunting wild’). He’s simply outstanding in the last few phrases of his solo, beginning at ‘Then when much blood had clogged their chariot wheels’ (cue 125); these bars are unbearably moving and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a baritone invest these lines with such meaning - or certainly not with this sort of meaning.
 
Christian Gerhaher is a younger singer than Hampson - fourteen years younger, in fact. Like Hampson he’s a renowned Lieder singer, and it shows. There are quite a number of places where, despite his excellent English, one is reminded that he’s not an Anglophone - he follows a distinguished precedent since, like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, he is German. I admire his performance in this recording very much. He’s very expressive and deploys fine, even tone in ‘Bugles sang’ though, having listened first to Hampson I rather missed the American’s sense of world-weariness. Gerhaher projects the lowering menace of ‘Be slowly lifted up’ very powerfully, investing the word “arrogance” with biting bitterness. He’s vivid in ‘After the blast of lightning’ in which the anguish and despair of the poem is convincingly put over. Hampson also excels here and I think in his performance lines such as ‘My head hangs weighed with snow’ count for even more. One small touch in Gerhaher’s performance of ‘Strange meeting’ made me immediately wind back the disc to make sure I’d heard it correctly. In his first phrase, ‘None, said the other’ he almost speaks those last three words. It’s a most unusual effect, which I’ve never heard before and I found it very telling. Gerhaher brings much to this solo, singing most expressively, though I think Hampson is perhaps even more imaginative and this is one section of the score where the German singer’s English pronunciation inclines me towards Hampson.
 
It would be an impertinence and an impossibility to express a preference between the two tenors. I found that as soon as I’d noted down a subtlety or a felicity in Padmore’s performance Bostridge provided a different insight. One thing that may tip the balance is that some listeners may feel Bostridge over-inflects the words at times. I don’t feel that, though he is certainly individual at times, but one’s response to such things is bound to be subjective. Neither singer’s performance is a carbon copy of their respective performances in their previous recordings but then one wouldn’t expect that from artists of their calibre who are constantly rethinking the pieces they sing, if only in matters of subtle detail. 
 
Bostridge is ironic and bitter the first time we hear him (‘What passing bells’). His tone is light and sappy yet it has plenty of backbone. Later, he’s wonderfully expressive in ‘Move him, move him’ - listening to him one needs no reminder that the title of Owen’s poem is Futility. His contribution to the Agnus Dei movement is achingly beautiful: at the start his tone is wonderfully light though he hardens it quite deliberately at ‘The scribes on all the people shove’. His final rising phrase, such a memorably simple invention of Britten’s, yet so desperately poignant, is plangent and delicate. During his solo in ‘Strange meeting’ he makes every word count, his voice is ghostly and deliberately pallid as he delivers Owen’s (and Britten’s) searingly spectral vision.
 
Padmore is no less fine. Jansons adopts a slightly more measured pace that Pappano for ‘What passing bells’ and with the benefit of just a little more time and space Padmore can articulate the words rather more individually and invest them not with more meaning than Bostridge but with a subtly different meaning, His light, ethereal tone at the start of ‘Move him, move him’ really suggests the thoughts of a young soldier. When it comes to the Agnus Dei, Padmore is, like Bostridge, outstanding. If anything I find him even more gripping at ‘The scribes’ and, impossible though it may seem, even more affecting than his rival in the way he delivers the last rising phrase, the final note held as if on a thread of sound. In his delivery of ‘Strange meeting’, especially the opening phrases, he achieves a sense of numbness and otherworldliness that is most moving.
 
What of the conductors? Both deliver first-rate performances that are both dramatic and sensitive. Jansons is marginally broader than Pappano in certain passages and overall, allowing for the applause that breaks out at the end of his performance he takes about six minutes longer than Pappano to play the score - McCreesh is closer to Jansons: his studio performance lasts for eighty-four minutes, almost identical to Noseda’s live account. Comparing Pappano and Jansons, Pappano is a little more daring at times. He’s a bit more urgent in some of the male solos, such as ‘What passing bells’ and ‘Out there’. The dynamic range of Pappano’s recording is greater than what we hear from Jansons. In part this may be to do with the fact that Jansons’ performance is live - for one thing perhaps it was necessary to place the microphones a bit more closely - but there’s more to it than the recorded sound. Pappano is very hushed indeed at the very start; Jansons doesn’t achieve a comparable degree of quiet. Again, in the Offertorium, when the ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ fugue is reprised the Italian choir really do achieve the ppp marking and the result is superb. At the start of the ‘Libera me’ the slow orchestral stirrings are all-but inaudible in Pappano’s recording - and some may find that irritating - but he controls both the crescendo and the accelerando over the following pages superbly. By contrast you can hear more clearly what’s stirring to life at the start of this movement under Jansons but I am less convinced by the Latvian conductor’s crescendo; his performers seem to get louder than Pappano’s more quickly.
 
Undeniably, both conductors convey the sweep of this enormous score. Both are very successful at conveying the big ‘public’ moments but the sections with the male soloists and chamber orchestra are delivered with refinement. The bottom line is that both capture and convey the spirit of Britten’s score. I have not seen the booklet for Pappano’s recording. The BR Klassik booklet has notes and texts, clearly printed. It also includes biographies of the conductor and all the participating ensembles but says not a word about the soloists. It’s worth mentioning that though there’s no distracting audience noise that I could detect during the Jansons performance enthusiastic applause breaks out about 11 seconds after the last chord has died away. Usually I don’t mind applause after a live recording - though I know some people do - but this is one occasion when I wish it had been edited out.
 
Both are fine recordings but, pressed to a choice, I think I’d opt for Pappano. He has the better soprano and I like the wide dynamic range - though not everyone may agree with that last point. On balance I find more depth in Thomas Hampson than in Christian Gerhaher and although the choice of Pappano means you have to sacrifice Padmore, Ian Bostridge’s singing is just as rewarding. I’m just glad I don’t have to choose and can add both recordings to my collection. These are admirable additions to the discography of War Requiem.
 
John Quinn  

War requiem: Masterwork Index ~~ Discography
 

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