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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
War Requiem (1962) [84.05]
Susan Gritton (soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Christopher Maltman (baritone), Wrocław Philharmonic Choir, Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme, trebles of the Choir of New College Oxford, Gabrieli Consort and Players/Paul McCreesh
rec. Watford Colosseum, 5-9 January 2013: Birmingham Town Hall, 26 February 2013: Church of St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford, 15 March 2013
SIGNUM SIGCD 340 [37.20 + 46.45] 

Any recording of the War Requiem is inevitably going to be compared with the composer’s own version made in the Kingsway Hall, London, shortly after the first performance in Coventry Cathedral. It is amazing to realise, from John Culshaw’s autobiography Putting the record straight, that Decca had so little confidence in the work that they originally intended to issue a live recording of the disaster-ridden Coventry performance. Even after LPs were ready for issue they completely failed to anticipate the demand for them and were unable to satisfy the orders of customers for some months. Rather touchingly Culshaw recalls the lament of one Decca executive: “Could you think you could talk him into writing another Requiem that would sell as well? We wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.”
 
The presentation of this new recording echoes the Decca LP boxes in one immediate respect - the cover. Decca employed the bare title of the work printed on a black background, echoing the cover of the printed score; here we have the bare title on a white background, and it is equally effective. The excellence of the presentation does not stop there; we have a solidly bound hardcover book with complete texts, translations, and multiple essays on the 1962 première of the work and the performance under discussion in both English and Polish (the language of the choir). The texts come with photographs of the trenches during the First World War, which have clearly been carefully selected to illustrate the particular facet of Wilfred Owen’s poems which are on the adjacent pages. Even more commendably the photographs in the Polish section of the book, which are all different, are chosen with similar relevance. Incidentally there is a discrepancy in the descriptions of the first performance; Maggie Cotton tells us that the programme for that performance specified “no applause … by the request of the composer”, but Tony Palmer on the other hand states that the lack of applause disconcerted the performers, who took the silence as a sign of disapproval and “were [not] quite sure what to do.” They can’t both be right.
 
Where this performance differs from Britten’s own is in the manner of the recording. Britten recorded the whole work in Kingsway Hall, and Culshaw describes in some detail the manner in which different acoustics were obtained for the full orchestra, chamber orchestra and boys’ chorus by placing the forces in different parts of the building. Here we are given three distinct recording venues, presumably one for each of the sets of forces involved - although this rather important matter is not discussed in the notes. The fact that two different organists are credited - one for the full orchestral passages, and another for the sections with the boys’ choir - confirms one’s suspicions, however. Britten himself clearly wanted a difference in the sound of the various sections - it led to disputes with his soprano soloist Galina Vishnevskaya - which he sought to realise with Culshaw’s assistance. Thus, the fact that this recording has been electronically stitched together from three distinct acoustics is not a real problem. Indeed, there seems to be little real acoustic difference between the various venues, although the greater distancing of the sound does not have the immediacy or impact that Culshaw captured in the now demolished Kingsway Hall. For example, the timpani lack the ideal violence of definition in passages such as “Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm”. Also the boys’ choir are so distant as to be almost inaudible at their first entry in the Hostias which counterpoints the ironic “half the seed of Europe, one by one”. This hardly sounds more in the audio picture during the final In paradisum.
 
It should be noted that the recording has a very wide dynamic range, much wider than that of the Britten discs. If you set the volume to a reasonable level for the quietest passages such as “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” you are likely to be blasted out of your seat by the Dies irae. 

McCreesh is an old hand at dealing with spatially separated forces in his recordings of ceremonial music - and the War Requiem should surely be placed in that category. Britten’s work is by far the most recent score he has recorded with his Gabrieli forces. Indeed, although the orchestra is credited as the ‘Gabrieli Players’, the forces involved, with a Wagnerian complement of strings, an additional chamber orchestra, and not least the use of modern instruments, mean that the instrumental body here is far more than simply the same group of players writ large. One could indeed gather this from the presence in the named forces of individual instrumentalists well-known from other orchestral bodies.
 
For Britten’s own recording he made symbolic use of three singers from different combatant nations in the World Wars: Britain, Germany and Russia. At the first performance difficulties were made by the Soviet authorities about the participation of Galina Vishnevskaya. Her role was taken over by the Irish soprano Heather Harper - who only managed to subsequently record her role commercially with Richard Hickox some twenty-five years later. Many performances and recordings since have attempted to mirror Britten’s intentions, using soloists from different nationalities as circumstances permitted. Here, apart from the use of a Polish chorus, singing throughout in Latin, all the soloists are British. This makes sense in terms of the settings of the Wilfred Owen poems - there are points in the Britten recording where it is not easy to make out the words of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, even with his superlative diction - but one rather misses the sense of reconciliation between the soloists of the warring nations that one found with the ‘original cast’. On the other hand Susan Gritton is a far steadier soprano soloist than was Vishnevskaya with her wild Slavonic vibrato. Gritton sounds more reminiscent of Harper. Both John Mark Ainsley and Christopher Maltman relish the irony and passion of Owen’s words, with diction which matches that of Pears and Fisher-Dieskau. That said, Maltman cannot equal the German singer’s sense of desperation in the line “May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!”
 
The War Requiem is an awkward work to fit onto CD, just too long for a single disc - and several of the recordings, such as the much-praised version by Hickox for Chandos, have supplied other pieces to fill up the playing time on the second CD. Britten’s own recording originally came on CD without coupling, but for the reissue Decca included extracts from the rehearsal sequences which Culshaw had recorded surreptitiously without Britten’s knowledge (and to the composer’s apparent displeasure) which make for a fascinating bonus. Culshaw had recorded much more of these sequences, but it appears that the tapes were subsequently and lamentably destroyed. However here McCreesh gives us no additional material at all, splitting the two CDs in the same way as the original LP issue of Britten’s recording. There are however only tracks for the individual movements of the score, so that it is for example impossible to select any specific passage in the lengthy Dies irae.
 
Considering the expense and difficulty of assembling the massive forces required, there are a surprisingly large number of recordings - thirty currently listed in Archiv - of the War Requiem in the catalogues. Given that any recording is always going to be something of a special occasion, it is not so surprising that most are extremely good, many of them having something special of their own to contribute.
 
This fiftieth anniversary recording comes pretty well at the top of the modern list, but no recording is ever going to totally supersede the original which had composer, soloists, chorus, orchestra and recording engineers all performing at the very top of their game. Britten never did write “another Requiem that would sell as well”, but the War Requiem will do very nicely, thank you. It is a work of blazing genius which alone would bid defiance to those critics who want to take pot shots at the composer because of his sexuality, paedophiliac tendencies, cowardice, or whatever in the way of mud they can find to throw at Britten in his centenary year. I understand that the Britten recording has been re-mastered in its newest release, and also comes complete with a Blu-Ray disc of the tapes which presumably brings it back into the highest reckoning in terms of recorded sound.
 
I should however mention one other recorded performance which, if memory serves, also rivals the original Britten recording. That was a television broadcast of an Albert Hall performance in 1993 with Britten’s friend and colleague Mtislav Rostropovich conducting the main body of chorus and orchestra, Richard Hickox as an independent conductor (as the composer designed) of the chamber forces, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Bryn Terfel as the male soloists. I don’t think this performance has ever been commercially available on DVD or CD - there are pirated versions around - but it should be.  

Paul Corfield Godfrey
 
See also review by John Quinn

Britten discography & review index: War Requiem

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