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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
War Requiem (1962)
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 & All Angels, Summertown, Oxford, 15 March 2013
SIGNUM SIGCD340 [37:20 + 46:45]

Paul McCreesh’s Gabrieli/Wrocław recordings have become events to look forward to. His revelatory recordings of Berlioz’s Requiem and Mendelssohn’s Elijah helped to rediscover the appeal of the gigantic in those works and they did so triumphantly, arguably becoming first choice recordings in both cases. Another of their appeals had been their use of period instruments to reinvigorate the work’s sound-world. That perhaps isn’t necessary for a work like the War Requiem that is only 51 years old, but every other aspect of McCreesh’s approach - the scale, the attention to detail, the care and the conviction - works brilliantly.
 
The first glory of the set is the recording quality. That’s particularly important in this work as Britten always intended his three groups of performers - tenor and baritone with chamber choir; soprano, chorus with large orchestra; boys and organ - to sound as though they were inhabiting different spaces. John Culshaw’s solutions in the composer’s own recording have always sounded unnecessarily “enhanced” to my ears, but the Signum engineers find the perfect balance here - as did those for Rattle’s CBSO recording. It’s quite exciting listening to the transition from one form to the other and, in fact, the ear doesn’t really notice the blooming acoustic of the large orchestra until it has slipped imperceptibly into the much closer world of the chamber players. The boys in the far-off distance are spooky at times - exactly Britten’s intention - and are particularly effective in the Hostias and the final In paradisum. These different sound-worlds may be a technicality to some but it’s central to the success of the work and allows the musical performance to breathe organically, which it does so very successfully.
 
McCreesh has an unflinching sense of vision in his control of the great arc of music. From the doleful tread of the bells in the Requiem aeternam to the not quite transcendent peace of the In paradisum, he shapes each movement with a great sense of purpose and conviction. Particularly impressive is the ominous sense of impending doom in the opening passage of the Libera me, which builds into a shattering sense of climax. McCreesh is particularly adept at handling the transitions between the different sections, not just in the technical sense of switching from full orchestra to chamber orchestra, but also in the sense of mood. More often than not, Britten uses Owen’s poems to undermine rather than enhance the mood of the Latin text, and McCreesh can switch from the meditative to the sardonic at the flick of a switch. Listen, for example, to the Sanctus: from the opening tintinnabulations through to the vast choral climax and the soprano’s luminous commentary, he then switches instantly to deadpan emptiness for the setting of After the blast.
 
Throughout, the massed forces of the orchestra and many choruses sound sensational, filling the acoustic and creating the sense of a great occasion being captured. The chorus are capable of great beauty, such as in the a cappella setting of Requiem aeternam at the end of the first movement, or the final Requiescat in pace, but they can produce hair-raising intensity at the big climaxes. As elsewhere, I was particularly impressed by their ability to switch moods, such as from the beauty of the Recordare to the edginess of the Confutatis in only a few seconds, and the sense of a collective enterprise is thrilling.
 
The Hostias is, in many ways, the greatest example of every element working at its best. At the opening, the boys and the organ sound distant, eerie and even a little threatening as they intone the Latin text, before the full chorus adds more earthily recognisable tone in the fugue. The chamber orchestra then takes over, bumping along to the sound of Abraham and Isaac as they walk to the scene of the sacrifice, and sounding utterly magical at the appearance of the angel. Then, at the grim conclusion of the song, the boys re-enter spectrally in the distance, echoing the departed souls of “half the seed of Europe” as the soloists keep intoning the fragments of their line. The final section, where the chorus tries to re-start the fugue, sounds hollow and empty in the aftermath.
 
The trio of soloists are very successful. Susan Gritton is an excellent soprano voice, coasting above the great tidal wave of the chorus at the big moments, most impressively in the Libera me, without ever sounding strident. Ainsley and Maltman make a great team and they are, in fact, at their best when they are together. The final duet on Strange Meeting is the spellbinding climax of the performance … and of the work. In this poem they find poignancy and heartrending pity, just as in the earlier moments - most notably the dance of death after the Rex tremendae and the sarcasm of the Hostias - they find sardonic bitterness to spare. Maltman is particularly impressive in his solo sections. He taps successfully into the loneliness of Bugles sang and is both threatening and ominous in the address to the field gun. He begins and ends After the blast of lightning in the East with a pallid voice, devoid of emotion, but he finds reserves of anger, even resentment in the middle. Ainsley is also impressive, piercing and brittle in the angry Anthem for Doomed Youth, while accepting the poignant irreversibility of the situation in Futility. However, I missed the beauty that you find in a voice like that of Philip Langridge on Hickox’s recording - and, yes: there is room for beauty in a work like this. Langridge gives a meltingly moving rendering of the Agnus Dei that I missed here. Ainsley’s is capable, but for me this still centre of the work sounded a little strained, despite the excellent contributions of the orchestra and chorus.
 
The booklet is beautifully presented, with full texts as well as an excellent essay and a collection of first-hand accounts from those connected with either this recording or the very first performance. It is also lavishly illustrated with photographs of scenes from the Great War. There are two things I would have liked which are missing, though: firstly, it would have been good to have known more about the circumstances of this particular recording, about which the notes are all but silent. In particular, no explanation is given for the three different dates and venues for the recording. Also, I would have liked there to have been more tracks to divide up the sections: there is only one track for each movement, which is unfortunate. I’m sure this won’t put anyone off, though, nor should it.
 
I don’t think there is any truly ideal version of the War Requiem out there. Britten’s own recording has an irreplaceable hallmark of authority, but Culshaw’s engineering is fussy and now sounds dated. Rattle conducts with astounding conviction but his soloists aren’t the best, while the opposite is true for Hickox’s LSO recording. McCreesh can hold his own against this competition, though, and it’s one of the blessings of the Britten centenary year that it has brought us a new recording like this. I note with interest, though, that Antonio Pappano has a new recording in the pipeline with the Santa Cecilia forces, featuring Netrebko, Bostridge and Hampson, and that could prove very interesting indeed.
 
Simon Thompson

See also review by John Quinn and Paul Corfield Godfrey

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