Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
War Requiem, Op. 66 (1962) [82:44]
Evelina Dobracheva (soprano); Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor); Mark Stone (baritone)
Netherlands Radio Choir; Netherlands Children’s Choir
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden; Reinbert de Leeuw
rec. live, 28 May 2010, Vredenburg Leidsche Rijn, Utrecht. DSD
Latin text and English translations and English texts included.
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72388 SACD [47:00 + 35:44]
Issued in time to mark the 50th anniversary of the first performance of War Requiem this live 2010 recording is somewhat unusual in that two conductors are employed. Jaap van Zweden conducts the main orchestra and chorus while the two male soloists and chamber orchestra are under the direction of Reinbert de Leeuw. This follows the precedent of the first performance when those tasks were undertaken respectively by Meredith Davies and the composer. However, it’s unusual to find two conductors in recordings - or in live performances nowadays, come to that. Even Britten himself, when he came to make the first recording of the work a few months after the première, eschewed a second conductor on that occasion. In his absorbing new book on the work - The Idea was Good. The Story of Britten’s War Requiem (Coventry, 2012) - Michael Foster lists 17 recordings of the work, not including this present one, of which only one uses two conductors. This is the very fine live 1969 recording by Carlo Maria Giulini and Britten (BBCL 4046-2). I’m not sure why two conductors were used for this performance. Possibly the male soloists and their accompanying ensemble were situated at some distance from the other performers, though I couldn’t detect that - it may be audible to those who listen to the recording as an SACD; I listened in conventional CD format. However, provided the performance flows seamlessly - which it does here - it’s not really an issue.
There’s a good deal to admire in this performance. The Netherlands Radio Choir sings well. They’re quiet but clear at the very start and in the Dies Irae their singing is incisive but has suitable weight of tone. The ladies do well in the ‘Recordare’ section of that movement while the men are firm and agile in the ‘Confutatis’. The choir also makes a very good impression in the fugal sections of the Offertorium - I like their crispness in the quiet reprise of the fugue. The young voices of the Netherlands Children’s Choir also impress. Everything they sing is voiced clearly and accurately. Their fresh, eager voices are nicely distanced in the recording, the balance accurately judged.
The orchestral playing - both that of the full orchestra and that of the chamber ensemble - is on a par with the level of choral accomplishment. The chamber ensemble delivers their difficult and often exposed music with great accuracy, the playing well pointed.
What of the soloists? The young Russian soprano, Evelina Dobracheva, is new to me but I see that her teachers have included Julia Varady. She certainly brings an imperious presence to the ‘Liber scriptus’ and ‘Rex tremendae’ solos. Hers is the sort of timbre that Britten presumably had in mind for these solos although it’s not quite to my taste. Later, she does the long lines in the Benedictus, where a very different approach is required, very well. Mark Stone does well in the baritone role. I like his firm tone and good legato in ‘Bugles sang’ and his diction here and elsewhere is admirably clear. He sings expressively without overdoing things. He’s suitably threatening at ‘Be slowly lifted up’ and he makes a fine contribution to the long passage for the two soloists, the setting of Owen’s Strange Meeting, in the last movement. I’ve heard this singer on a number of previous discs and while I’ve generally liked his singing I’ve had a couple of minor reservations but this performance is, I think, the best thing I’ve heard him do.
I wish I could be so enthusiastic about his tenor colleague, Anthony Dean Griffey. The American tenor has recorded this work before, with Kurt Masur (LPO Live 0010), though I’ve not heard that version. He does his first solo, ‘What passing bells’, quite well; that piece calls, in the main, for fairly forthright singing. Doubts begin to creep in during ‘Move him, move him into the sun’. He doesn’t float the line in the plangent way that Peter Pears does on the Britten recording (review), nor in the manner of Mark Padmore in the recent 50th anniversary performance in Coventry cathedral (review). At the opening of this solo the instruction to the tenor in the score is “whispered”. Griffey doesn’t really do that, though his voice is quite soft. What unsettles me, however, is his use of unmarked portamento at ‘Was it for this?’ (CD 1, track 2, 23:56) He repeats the effect a moment later at ‘the clay grew tall’. I’m sorry, but this is ugly and since it’s not in the score and since Peter Pears didn’t sing the passage this way under the composer’s direction I think we can be fairly confident that Britten didn’t want it done this way. That said, a couple of minutes later Griffey gives great pleasure with his mezza voce at ‘Oh what made fatuous sunbeams toil.’ In the Offertorium - and also at certain points in each of the last two movements some of his vowel sounds are distinctly odd. His delivery of the tenor solo in the Agnus Dei is rather too ‘public’; his voice lacks the sappy lightness of Pears or Padmore. And his delivery of that wonderfully poignant concluding phrase, ‘Dona nobis pacem’ is, frankly, prosaic; for one thing he sings it pretty much in strict time where surely a degree of rubato is called for. Griffey disappoints also at the start of Strange Meeting (CD 2, track 3, 7:52). There’s no real mystery and he certainly doesn’t get down to piano, as marked in the score. He’s better, employing a lighter tone, at ‘Strange friend’ but by then it’s too late and Mark Stone’s singing of the subsequent baritone solo rather puts him in the shade. One doesn’t want a Pears clone in this role but Pears himself and subsequent singers such as Padmore or Philip Langridge (for Richard Hickox on Chandos) have brought far more insight and subtlety to this role than we experience here.
The two conductors direct their forces well. Jaap van Zweden marshals his large forces well, realising successfully, for example, the brazen majesty of the ‘Hosannas’ in the Sanctus. He brings out the menace and gathering excitement in the first few minutes of the last movement, culminating in the huge climax (CD 2, track 3, 6:34), and the concluding full ensemble is well handled and balanced. Reinbert de Leeuw ensures that the chamber ensemble is incisive throughout.
The recorded sound is impressive - I only listened in conventional CD format. There are a couple of slight presentational niggles. One is the absurdly small gap (three seconds at most) between the first and second movement. I also regret that, like the Hickox recording on Chandos, the Dies Irae is presented as one single track. Though it’s a recording made at a live performance I couldn’t detect any audience noise and applause is mercifully absent.
As I said at the start, there’s much to admire in this recording and other listeners may not agree with my criticisms of the tenor soloist. However, for all its merits, there are better versions on the market, including the Hickox version (CHAN8983/4) and Rattle’s EMI account (review). The hegemony of Britten’s own Decca recording (review) is unchallenged. The recording sounds incredibly good nearly 50 years on and the performance and interpretation are pretty much definitive.
Much to admire in this recording but there are better versions of War Requiem on the market.