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CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline

Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
War Requiem, Op. 66 (1960-1962)
Annette Dasch (soprano); James Taylor (tenor); Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Aurelius Sängerknaben Calw/Johannes Sorg
Festivalensemble Stuttgart/Helmuth Rilling, Robin Engelen
rec. 9 September 2007, Beethovensaal, Stuttgart, Germany (Europäisches Musikfest)
Texts included
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD98.507 [2CDs: 82:40]
Experience Classicsonline

Definitive isn’t a word I use lightly but Britten’s recording of the War Requiem must surely qualify. Granted, composers aren’t always the best interpreters of their own work but Britten is a notable exception. Add to that three hand-picked soloists - Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau - and a first-rate recording team led by John Culshaw and it’s not hard to see why this remains a very special set indeed.

Regrettably, the War Requiem - like Bernstein’s Mass - has some mawkish moments, which are hard to disguise even in the most committed performances, Among the latter must be counted Carlo Maria Giulini’s live 1969 account (BBC Legends BBCL 4046-2) which comes closer than most to the spirit of Britten’s own reading. Not surprising, perhaps, as the composer was involved in that performance, which also boasts Pears as the tenor soloist. In recent years Sir Simon Rattle, Bernard Haitink and the late Richard Hickox have all recorded the work, but for me Kurt Masur’s live performance from 2005 remains the most consistently satisfying of all.

Given such strong competition Helmuth Rilling may seem something of a wild card. Ditto his soloists, who are up against Masur’s stellar trio of Christine Brewer, Anthony Dean Griffey and Gerald Finley. As with that other great requiem - Verdi’s - a strong, well-matched team of singers is essential to the success of this one too. I particularly enjoy hearing Finley, whose disc of Ives songs was one of my picks for 2008 (see review).

On the Decca set the Requiem aeternam is superbly detailed, the chorus crisp, clear and believably placed. As required the boys’ choir is positioned further back, creating a somewhat ethereal effect, the young voices always sounding fresh and unsullied. By contrast this spatial arrangement is not as pronounced on the Hänssler set; indeed, the Aurelius Sängerknaben scarcely make any impression at all. Diction is not ideal either - a problem that applies to Rilling’s choruses and soloists alike - and the conductor paces this music a touch too deliberately for my taste. There is no sense of foreboding here, but at least the recording is reasonably atmospheric.

Britten’s setting of Owen’s alliterative Anthem for Doomed Youth has always struck me as one of the least successful in this work. Once heard Pears’ distinctively plummy tones are hard to erase but at least you can make out the words. James Taylor is much too far back, as indeed are all the soloists in Rilling’s performance. This turns them spectators rather than participants and that rather undermines the importance of the texts. As expected Finley calibrates his voice well, adding real feeling to this sombre poem. Masur’s chorus is also alive to the nuances of the texts, Rilling’s well blended but often reduced to a wordless murmur. The Stuttgarters do make amends in the Dies irae, aided by some powerful percussion, although if it’s shock and awe you’re after Britten and Masur are the versions to go for.

‘Bugles sang’, from Voices, is sonorously done by baritone Christian Gerhaher, albeit with little feeling for the words. As for the soprano’s Liber scriptus no-one can match, let alone equal, the imperious Vishnevskaya, who hurls her words into the void with such fury. Brewer (for Masur) doesn’t have quite the same heft but she’s pretty convincing nonetheless. Rilling’s Annette Dasch has a lovely, secure voice but it isn’t really up to the demands of Britten’s writing at this point. As for Taylor and Gerhaher they manage to capture the forced jollity of ‘Out there we’ve walked quite friendly up to death’, although I’ve always found this setting a trifle twee.

The Recordare, well projected and sung in the Britten and Masur recordings, doesn’t have quite the same impact under Rilling; that steady orchestral tread isn’t so all-pervasive either, although he does raise the temperature somewhat in the reprise of the Dies irae that follows. Here the soundstage really opens out and the bass is thrillingly felt. That said, this performance just doesn’t have the consistency of focus or the propulsive energy that characterises both the Britten and the Masur. The baritone’s ‘Be slowly lifted up’ barely registers and the tenor’s plea to ‘Move him into the sun’ has none of the ache and tenderness that Finley finds in these desperate words. This work really is about the soloists, and that’s what separates the merely good performances from the truly great ones.

The Aurelius Sängerknaben are crisp and bright at the start of the Offertorium and Rilling injects some much-needed energy into the orchestral accompaniment as well. For me ‘So Abram rose’, from The Parable of the Old Men and the Young, with its hair-raising harp figures, has always been the highlight of the War Requiem. Britten is superbly dramatic here, Pears and Fischer-Dieskau singing with great clarity and unanimity. I’m pleased to say Taylor and Gerhaher acquit themselves quite well at this point, although for vocal blend, depth of feeling and sheer frisson Finley and Griffey are in a class of their own. Similarly Vishnevskaya makes an unforgettable impression with her searing Sanctus. Dasch is nowhere near as commanding, but at least Rilling’s chorus and percussionists make a splendid noise, sounding much more controlled and refined than the composer’s forces on the ageing Decca disc.

Listening to Britten’s reading of the Sanctus I was immediately struck by the music’s rhythmic and dramatic power, qualities Rilling simply doesn’t extract from this score. Indeed, in Britten’s hands the War Requiem still sounds remarkably fresh and modern, whereas in Rilling’s it lacks all necessary musical and emotional contrasts. That said, the distant cannon fire that begins the Libera me is very well caught by the Hänssler engineers, as indeed it is by the LPO team for Masur. This really is the nightmare of battle, the snare drums underpinning the febrile chorus, not to mention the deafening bass drum. At last there’s some real weight and drama from Maestro Rilling; what a pity it’s all come too late.

The War Requiem draws to a close with Strange Meeting, Owen’s most iconic poem set to some of Britten’s most marrow-chilling music. The spare orchestration, with its ghostly groans and shudders, is entirely apt for this grim tableau, and I have to say James Taylor does a very convincing job with the text. Arguably Finley digs even deeper and finds an extra layer of horror - especially in the words ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’- but Taylor’s is still a very fine performance indeed. In ‘Let us sleep now’ Rilling’s forces find a wonderful sense of repose, Dasch soaring gloriously above them all. If anything Masur’s soloists and chorus are even finer at this point, the LPO singers rich-toned and beautifully blended. Surely one of the most poignant summations in all music.

There is much to admire in Rilling’s account of the War Requiem but in such a hotly contested field it simply isn’t a front-runner. The composer’s own recording, helped by an upfront - and somewhat exaggerated - soundstage, is the strongest contender when it comes to sheer drama. Masur’s falls somewhere between these two with a reading that combines emotional intensity with an almost chamber-like refinement and sense of scale. For me the latter’s the version to have, but be warned; the LPO disc is SACD only and will not play on a conventional CD player or disc drive.

Dan Morgan 


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