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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
War Requiem, Op. 66 (1961) [81:24]
Rehearsing War Requiem: recordings made during session rehearsals* [49:34]
Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano); Peter Pears (tenor); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone)
The Bach Choir; London Symphony Chorus; Highgate School Choir
Melos Ensemble
Simon Preston (organ)
London Symphony Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 3-5, 7, 8, 10 January 1963 Stereo/*mono
DECCA - THE ORIGINALS 475 7511 [54:52 + 76:50]

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What does one say about such a famous recording that has not already been said – and probably said better?

As is well known Britten’s work was commissioned to mark the opening of the new cathedral in Coventry to replace the old one, destroyed in the Blitz. War Requiem was completed in December 1961 and received its first performance in the new cathedral on 30 May 1962. The two male soloists then were Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Last minute political sensitivities meant that Galina Vishnevskaya was unable to take part. Her place was taken at ten days notice by Heather Harper and some people have expressed regret that Miss Harper was not engaged for this recording as well, in preference to the more flamboyant Russian soprano. Instead Miss Harper had to wait until 1991 to record the work on Richard Hickox’s Chandos set. I admire Heather Harper enormously but I think it’s important to remember that Britten conceived all three solo roles bearing in mind expressly the voices of the singers who appear on this recording. Furthermore, he attached great symbolic significance to the use of a Russian, a German and an English soloist, at least for the première.

The work clearly meant a lot to Britten, a long-standing pacifist. As Michael Steinberg has pointed out, when he wrote it in 1961 it was against a background of significant international tension. The fiasco of the Bay of Pigs took place that year and work started on the construction of the Berlin Wall. When one recalls that in addition increasing numbers of American troops were arriving in Vietnam the precious nature of peace for mankind must have seemed very real to Britten, as to countless others, whether or not they shared his pacifist convictions.

This recording was made around the time of the London première. For many years it had the field to itself but gradually other versions have been set down. Among those that I’ve heard I esteem particularly those by Rattle (EMI 7 47034-8) and Hickox (Chandos CHAN 8983/4). Then 2000 saw the release of a particularly welcome surprise in the shape of a live Royal Albert Hall performance from 1969 in which Carlo Maria Giulini conducts New Philharmonia forces while Britten himself directs the Melos Ensemble. This BBC Legends set (BBCL 4046-2) is a very special experience indeed and in many ways it offers the strongest challenge of all to Britten’s own recording. I’d strongly urge any admirer of this work to hear it.

But returning to this Britten interpretation after rather a long time I’ve realised afresh that this recording is, in the last analysis, pretty much hors concours. Britten conducts with unique authority and all the performers respond with evident and complete commitment. The playing of the LSO is magnificently incisive – the brass and percussion are superbly biting in the Dies Irae fanfares and are recorded with tremendous presence. The Melos Ensemble accompanies the male soloists with great sensitivity and no little virtuosity. The combined forces of the Bach Choir and the LSO Chorus, trained by Sir David Willcocks, no less, sing superbly and meet all of Britten’s stringent demands concerning dynamics. The boys of Highgate School Choir – in whose ranks was one John Rutter, I believe – sing with an innocent purity and great accuracy, which must have pleased Britten greatly.

All three soloists are highly individual artists and, as such, inevitably court controversy. It’s possible to find other soloists on disc who bring different perspectives and insights to the music. For example, some may find Galina Vishnevskaya somewhat histrionic or object to the Slavic timbre of her voice. For myself, I’m a little uncomfortable with her pronunciation and tone at ‘Tremens factus’ in the Lacrymosa. On the other hand, she’s majestic and imperious at ‘Liber scriptus proferetur’ in the Dies Irae and later on in the same movement, at Lacrymosa she’s uniquely beseeching. I prefer both Heather Harper (Hickox) and Elisabeth Söderström (Rattle) at times but Vishnevskaya brings something special to this music.

So does Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Returning to the recording for this review, having not heard it for a while, I was more aware than before that English is not his first language. This is particularly evident in some of his vowel pronunciations. But the pronunciation is never a distraction and on the other side of the ledger there are numerous felicities from this great artist, who is in sovereign voice. He’s wonderfully eloquent in ‘Bugles sang’, conveying superbly the desolation of Wilfred Owen’s text. Later in the Dies Irae he’s shatteringly intense in ‘Be slowly lifted up’. That setting contains some of the most evocative music in the whole work and Fischer-Dieskau imparts terrifying emotion here. As the work draws to its close the duet setting of Owen’s poem, ‘Strange Meeting’ finds the German baritone combining marvellously with Pears. It’s well known that at the work’s first performance Fischer-Dieskau was so deeply affected by this passage that Pears had to assist him to leave the stage. Much of that feeling comes across here though both performers sing with consummate control. Both John Shirley-Quirk (Hickox) and Sir Thomas Allen (Rattle) give splendid accounts of the baritone part in this work but the authority and insight of Fischer-Dieskau cannot be denied.

And as for Pears, well he too is incomparable. He brings a particular eloquence to ‘Move him gently into the sun’ and his duet with Fischer-Dieskau, ‘So Abram rose’ in the Offertorium is magnificent. He surpasses himself in ‘One ever hangs’ – an inspired setting, combined with the Agnus Dei of the Mass – where his singing is most affecting. Who can hear the final rising phrase, ‘Dona nobis pacem’, without hearing in their mind the particular timbre and inflection of Pears? But it is in the setting of ‘Strange meeting’ that Pears’ artistry touches greatness. As he intones the opening line, ‘It seemed that out of battle I escaped’ and the lines that follow he manages to combine stillness and aching intensity. It’s a particularly memorable few moments in this absorbing work.

As you’ll see from the timings given above, the original issue of War Requiem was rather short measure for two CDs. In 1999 Decca re-mastered and reissued the recording, adding a sizeable and very important bonus in the form of some fifty minutes of rehearsal sequences captured during the sessions. It’s this expanded 1999 package that’s issued again here.

There’s an interesting history behind the rehearsal sequences, as Donald Mitchell relates in a booklet note. The recording was made secretly by producer John Culshaw by the expedient of leaving open the microphone link from Britten’s rostrum to the control room. A couple of short conversations in the control room were also captured. For Britten’s fiftieth birthday later in 1963 Culshaw had the recording transferred to an LP – with the serial number BB50 – and presented it to Britten. It’s surprising, perhaps, that Culshaw, who had worked often with Britten, so badly misread him for the hypersensitive composer was "appalled" at what he saw as a gross intrusion into his privacy and he made his displeasure very plain to Culshaw. Knowing what one does of how prickly Britten could be it’s somewhat surprising that he didn’t order the recording to be destroyed. But thankfully he didn’t and in 1999 the Britten Estate decided, very wisely, that the recording was of such interest and value that it should be published.

I’d not heard these extracts before and I found them utterly absorbing. Britten’s voice can be heard very clearly indeed – and his diction is crystal clear anyway. The music is less well caught but that doesn’t matter in the slightest. In Mitchell’s memorable phrase we hear "the recording of War Requiem in the fire of its making". As someone who has taken part – at the receiving end – in many choral rehearsals it was fascinating – and reassuring – to find some familiar issues arising. Thus Britten tells his chorus "I need lots of words". Intervals, too, can cause problems. At one point Britten says to the boys "From A to G is a hell of a long way – excuse my language". In one exchange after a playback he compliments Pears – very rightly – on his very special singing at the end of the Agnus Dei. Yet Pears, ever exacting of himself, says he’d like one more go. Which take do we hear on the finished recording, I wonder? There’s an amusing exchange with Vishnevskaya when he admits that he finds one passage difficult to conduct and she asks him, not unreasonably, why he had written it thus. His disarming answer is that he didn’t write it for himself to conduct! One feels that one is listening in to a bit of musical history here and even if you already have this recording of War Requiem in its original format I’d urge you to acquire this release also simply for the sake of these rehearsal sequences which constitute an invaluable and highly important historical document and give us a wonderful insight into how a great composer and fine conductor gets results.

I mentioned that the recording has been re-mastered. I’ve heard from one or two sources that the original CD issue ( 414 383-3) had a good deal of hiss, although I’ve never been acutely conscious of this so I made a particular point of doing a good deal of A/B listening to both issues, using headphones. I concentrated in particular on quiet passages such as the very opening; ‘Move him gently into the sun’; ‘After the blast of lightening’; and ‘It seemed that out of battle I escaped’. I have to say that on my equipment I couldn’t detect any hiss, or any significant difference between the two copies, though there is a slightly greater definition to the re-mastered sound, which is also noticeable at big moments such as the apocalyptic brass fanfares in the Dies Irae. I have noted at the end of this review the details of my equipment since it’s perfectly possible that more sensitive apparatus may make apparent a greater sonic disparity between the original issue and this newcomer. However, I can see no reason to "trade up" simply on grounds of sound quality. The sound, it should be said, is absolutely superb. Climaxes open up wonderfully yet the most intimate quiet passages – of which there are many – are captured in wonderful detail. This recording is an eloquent testament to the skill of engineer Kenneth Wilkinson – and to the superb acoustics of Kingsway Hall.

I’m delighted to find that Decca have retained the typically perceptive and informative booklet essay by the late Christopher Palmer, which graced the original issue. However, I must lament one presentational change. The original CD issue – and the LPs – came with a stark, plain black cover on which were picked out in white nothing more than the name of the composer and the title of the work. For this latest issue we get a reduced picture of that cover against a blue background. It may be a small point but why emasculate one of the most arresting record sleeves ever produced? Why can’t designers leave well enough alone and acknowledge the inspiration of their predecessors without trying to "improve" it? A classic case of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

As I said earlier, since this groundbreaking recording was made forty-three years ago a number of other distinguished competitors have entered the lists. I certainly wouldn’t wish to be without the three that I’ve mentioned specifically. However, this Britten recording has an irreplaceable page in the annals of this wonderful and profoundly moving work. The plea for peace that War Requiem embodies is perhaps even more urgent in 2006 than was the case in 1961. Certainly it seems to me that the work and this superb recording, definitive in so many ways, speak to us as powerfully today as it ever did.

John Quinn
Equipment used for A/B comparison

CD player: Rotel RCD 9078X
Amplifier: Rotel 8408X3
Headphones: Sennheiser HD480


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