It is said that when the angels sing, they sing
Mozart: if that is true, then when the angels mourn, they sing
the Requiem thus.
This recording, simply put, is radiant with glory.
It quite possibly may be the apotheosis of Britten’s life-long
love affair with Mozart, and his accomplishments as a conductor.
Listening to it again – and again – I cannot but think that this
is what Mozart meant when he wrote this work.
Recorded four years before Britten’s death, and
at a time of illness, it may also represent an attempt to come
to terms with his own mortality, as he would do later in his last
opera, Death in Venice (1973). Indeed, at one point in
the Requiem, after the great fugue in the Hostias, Britten
puts down his baton for a moment, saying of this later that "he
just had to stop." Such is the power of this performance
that we perfectly understand what he meant.
There are a few interesting peculiarities in
this performance. Foremost among these is that Britten, dissatisfied
with the ("at times rudimentary") Süssmayr completion
of this work, and in particular bars 5-18 of the Tuba
Mirum, adds additional parts for violin and viola, allowing
a richer texture for the trombone, tenor, and bass to rest upon.
One may think this is an audacious sort of thing to do. For those
dogmatically insistent upon period instrument performance as the
only valid way to approach this work, this recording is thoroughly
improper. However Britten, as the 20th century’s premiere
composer of vocal dramas, was uniquely qualified to refine Süssmayr’s
completion. In other places there are very minor additions and
omissions as to the standard markings, but such is Britten’s devotion
to Mozart’s conception that these are hardly intrusive or uncalled
The tempi are sprightly or solemn as required
- one would expect well-chosen tempi from Britten. The crescendi
and decrescendi of the choir are revelatory in their impact. The
cast of soloists, all fairly familiar figures at Aldeburgh, seem
to transcend themselves in this passionate performance, and while
they are perhaps not beyond fault, certainly they all bring a
deep musicality and powerful conception to their parts. The English
Chamber Orchestra’s size allows for an ideal mixture of transparency
and breadth, and all the soloists play impeccably, as one would
expect from an ensemble held to Britten’s high standards.
In both the minute details and broader conception,
this performance astounds. The only negative element to this recording
is the less-than-ideal sound quality, but while there is
significant tape hiss, one ceases to notice it as the work shines
into being. In short, the sound is certainly tolerable, and should
absolutely not dissuade anyone from hearing this masterful version
of Mozart’s last and most profound work.
Finally, the recorded conversation between Benjamin
Britten and Donald Mitchell is an enlightening addition to one’s
understanding of the man. It is fascinating to hear the thoughts
of a man as erudite and accomplished as Britten, and Mitchell
is a tasteful and incisive interviewer. The conversation ranges
from the vicissitudes of television, to the benefits (or the lack
thereof) of composition lessons, to the impact of tradition, to
the essential characteristics of humanity. It is a delightful
addition to this already priceless performance, available on CD
for the first time.
At one point in his conversation with Mr. Mitchell,
Britten mentions that recently he was reading a play of Euripides,
and he felt that, despite its being written more than three thousand
years ago, its situations and characters could easily be transferred
to contemporary society. Because "human nature remains curiously
the same," Britten says, the work "seemed as if it was
written yesterday." And in listening to this performance
of Mozart’s Requiem, one feels that Mozart’s genius, as
well as Britten’s, and the surpassing beauty of their posthumous
collaboration, are as vital and true as the sunrise.
John R. Sisk