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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
War Requiem, op.66
Lorna Haywood, soprano, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor, Benjamin Luxon, baritone
Atlanta Symphony Chorus, Atlanta Boy Choir
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Robert Shaw
Recorded in Symphony Hall, Atlanta on 5, 7-8 Nov 1988
TELARC-80157 [2CDs: 83:18]


This recording was originally released some fifteen years ago, and was considered good enough to win two "Grammies" in 1989, for best choral performance and best classical recording. How does it match up today, particularly as so many other competitive versions have since arrived – chiefly those conducted by Rattle, Giulini, Brabbins and, most notably, Hickox?

The answer is very well indeed. The soloists are superb – there is no-one to beat Anthony Rolfe Johnson Britten’s music amongst living tenors, as his many fine recordings of the composer’s songs and choral works will confirm. Lorna Haywood sings with passion and commitment, and, despite being a fervent admirer of Vishnevskaya, I preferred Haywood to the Russian soprano’s performance on Britten’s own Decca version. The great Galina’s singing is sometimes hard to enjoy – that huge vibrato and the often impure tone don’t quite do it for me in Britten’s music. Haywood is intensely dramatic, but also sings with a clarity that enables the actual notes to be heard accurately – an important consideration!

But the real revelation for me amongst the soloists was Benjamin Luxon; he sings with tremendous power, and I have never heard "Be slowly lifted up" sound more chilling than this. The recording captures the thrilling edge to his voice perfectly.

The Atlanta Chorus is superb, with particularly resounding tenor and bass sections. The strangely named Atlanta Boy Choir sing with bright, focused sound, and the recording creates real perspective, that sense of space between them and the rest of the ensemble totally convincing.

The only area where this issue is narrowly inferior to those of Britten and Hickox is in the orchestral playing, which, though very fine in itself, just fails to hit the heights in the biggest moments, e.g. the Sanctus, where the trumpets’ first entry is tentative, and the massive outburst that marks the crux of the Libera me. I put this down to a little cautiousness on Robert Shaw’s part. I know it’s important not to drown singers, but there are places where a conductor must simply let rip and damn the consequences, otherwise the great moments risk going off at half-cock. It’s not as bad as that, but both Britten and Hickox are far more terrifying at these defining moments.

Listening to the Proms performance of the War Requiem this week-end, I fell to wondering how long it will be before Ian Bostridge records the tenor part of the work, maybe, as on this occasion, with Sir Colin Davis and LSO/LSC. Interestingly, Sir Colin conducted the second ever performance of the piece, and his admirers would surely love him to add it to his discography.

That’s for the future; but this current re-issue from the not-so-very-recent past deserves a warm and enthusiastic welcome back to the catalogue.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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