RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
War Requiem, Op. 66 (1962) [83:48]
Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
Sabina Cvilak (soprano)
Choir of Eltham College
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. live, Barbican, London, November 2011
Sung texts included
LSO LIVE LSO0719 SACD [46:35 + 37:13]
It seemed curiously appropriate that I was listening to Britten’s own performance of the War Requiem when I heard the sad news of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s death. He was the composer’s choice for the baritone part at the premiere of this great work in 1962. His performance in the subsequent Decca recording was simply unforgettable. Since then there have been a number of fine versions, but for all their strengths none has the immediacy and insight of the composer’s own. That said, Giulini’s live Albert Hall performance in April 1969 (BBC Legends) comes closest to it in spirit. Also, I was much impressed by Kurt Masur’s recording. His baritone Gerald Finley is especially affecting (LPO).
First impressions of this newcomer are entirely favourable. Those strange, twisting figures in the Requiem aeternam are as haunting as ever. The notorious Barbican acoustic seems less of a problem too, although anyone familiar with John Culshaw’s more spacious Decca recording will miss the sense of a larger performing space. The upside is that the LSO Live account has great clarity and tonal sophistication. The Eltham choir is crisp and well balanced. By contrast Bostridge and Keenlyside are rather distant and their presentation of the alliterative Anthem for Doomed Youth is less emphatic than that of Pears and Fischer-Dieskau. As for the soprano Sabina Cvilak, she sings most beautifully but is nowhere near as commanding as Vishnevskaya in the vaulting Liber scriptus.
The LSO certainly play well and the brass in the Dies irae are especially thrilling. As for the tam-tam in Be slowly lifted up it’s allowed to sound and resonate to great effect. No-one could be unshaken by the music that follows. Its ever-slowing tread and Cvilak’s perfectly scaled delivery are simply superb. All else pales next to Bostridge’s deeply moving, extraordinarily nuanced singing in Futility. Time stands still here, and I can’t recall a finer account of Owen’s sad supplication than this, either on record or in the concert hall. It’s also a measure of Britten’s genius that this music never loses its power to astound. The simplest means are used to convey the most complex of human emotions.
The LSO chorus deserve a mention in dispatches. Their quiet singing in Pie Jesu is ineffably beautiful. It’s at moments like these that the subtleties of this Super Audio recording are most evident. There are no problems at the other end of the dynamic spectrum either. The muscular drum thwacks and deep-throated brass in Sed signifer sanctus are very well caught. Bostridge and Keenlyside’s Parable of the Young Man and the Old is exquisitely done. The gorgeous harp and well-matched singers meld into another of those heart-stopping epiphanies that seem to be a Britten speciality. Gerald Finley and Anthony Dean Griffey blend well for Masur, whose live account also has a dramatic intensity and seamlessness that’s very impressive indeed.
The Sanctus, with its strange instrumental crescendi and angelus-like orchestral/vocal swings, is certainly powerful. That said, it doesn’t quite efface memories of Britten’s uniquely arresting version. Although Cvilak doesn’t have the heft of Brewer or Vishnevskaya she does compensate with a clean, wobble-free delivery. Once again Keenlyside sings most feelingly - yet without a hint of false sentiment - in The End. As for Noseda one has to applaud him for maintaining such a tight ensemble and for responding so sympathetically to his soloists.
It just gets better. The instrumental/vocal rise and fall of the Agnus Dei is as haunting as one could wish. The dry, metallic rumble of timps in the Libera me is very effective too, adding its own garish hue to this hellish scene. Indeed, I’ve rarely heard such a myriad of colours and textures as revealed by this fine recording. If Culshaw and his team excelled at the broad brush, the LSO Live engineers are masters of telling detail. That said, the climactic moments of the Libera me are unleashed with an unbridled energy that will take your breath away.
After that Bostridge and Keenlyside’s account of Strange Meeting is indescribably moving. It’s another of those moments when nothing else could possibly matter but the focused horror of this imagined, subterranean encounter. Not surprisingly the hush in the hall - it’s a remarkably subdued audience for November - is complete, everyone under Britten’s spell. That’s where live recordings come into their own; few studio ones offer that sense of deep communion, of shared, collective emotion. ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’, one of Owen’s most powerful lines, has a frisson like nothing else in this score. The music of Let us sleep now and the solemn Requiescat speak of a healing embrace and of comfort.
I doubt anyone in the hall was not moved - and moved mightily - by this most profound performance. It seems almost sacrilegious, in this sombre context, to cheer the conductor, soloists, orchestra, choirs and engineers but they deserve it. This is a triumph for all concerned. What I would have given to be at the Barbican that night. Still, we have an unforgettable record of that event, even if - as is usually the case - it’s assembled from more than one performance. Does it supplant Britten’s own? No, and I doubt anything ever could. That said, I can’t emphasise more strongly how compelling this newcomer is, and how important that anyone who knows and loves the War Requiem should hear it.
Britten discography & review index: War Requiem
I can’t emphasise more strongly how compelling this newcomer is, and how important that anyone who knows and loves the War Requiem should hear it.