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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Requiem in d minor, K. 626 for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass, chorus and orchestra [50:33]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
in conversation with Donald Mitchell [26:00]
Heather Harper, soprano
Alfreda Hodgson, mezzo-soprano
Peter Pears, tenor
John Shirley-Quirk, bass
Aldeburgh Festival Chorus
English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
Recorded 20 June 1971, Aldeburgh Festival Concert Hall (Requiem)
Recorded February 1969 (Interview)
Great Performers of the 20th Century series
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4119-2 [76:33]


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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 for.

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

 



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