RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
War Requiem, Op.66
Erin Wall (soprano); Mark Padmore (tenor); Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone)
CBSO Chorus; CBSO Youth Choir
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. Coventry Cathedral, 30 May 2012.
Sound: PCM stereo/DD 5.1
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish
Picture: 16:9, 1080i Full HD
Region code: 0 (all regions)
Also available on DVD: 101659
ARTHAUS MUSIK 108070 [97:00]
It hardly seems fifty years since the War Requiem made its impact in Coventry Cathedral. It was under the direction of Meredith Davies and not of Benjamin Britten himself, who had at a late stage decided to hand over the baton to his assistant in preparing for the Great Day. Composed to celebrate the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral which abutted and replaced the war-ravaged shell of its predecessor, it was the work by which Britten thought he would be longest remembered. Plenty of his other music is still going strong - Hyperion have just issued their second recording of A Ceremony of Carols and St Nicolas - but by my reckoning he was right to expect that it would be the War Requiem that would maintain his reputation. The reel-to-reel recording that I made at the time has long crumbled into a pile of dust and rust and even the Latin Requiem has been supplanted but the work itself is still going strong.
At the time I didn’t know much of Britten’s music; the Young Person’s Guide and a performance of Peter Grimes that had made me begin to realise that there was a great deal more to this composer were about all that I knew.
Not only is the music a powerful statement of regret at the folly of war and the hope of something better, it also helped to place the poetry of First World War poet Wilfred Owen before a wider public. It’s easy to forget how little known that poetry was in 1962 - though I was reading English at Oxford at the time, Owen had barely impinged on my consciousness; since then I’ve lost count of the number of exam scripts that I marked over the years which did greater or lesser justice to Owen’s poetry. The nadir must be the candidate who averred that the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon was preferable because Sassoon had died in the war, while Owen didn’t know what it was like to die in battle - actually it’s the other way round but the assumption that you have to be dead to write poetry about war opens up a whole new school of criticism.
Britten’s hope of having an international cast of soloists was disappointed at a late stage when the Soviet authorities refused to allow Galina Vishnevskaya to take part in a ‘political’ work - and one with religious connotations at that. Heather Harper had to step in at the last moment. The plan of having representatives from formerly warring nations was, however, maintained by the presence of Peter Pears as the tenor soloist and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the baritone.
That international dimension is repeated for this performance, again in Coventry Cathedral to commemorate the half-century of the event. The sense of occasion could never be repeated, but it’s clear from this recording that this was an event in its own right. John Quinn was fortunate enough to be there; you can find his appreciative review on Seen and Heard here and it’s clear from what he writes that the live performance was even more impressive than the recording could convey.
There’s a choice of recordings now but, inevitably, the 1963 version which Britten himself made for Decca is the elephant in the room for any subsequent performance or recording. It’s been very well re-mastered for Decca Originals on 475 7511 (see review). It enshrines the original concept in having Galina Vishnevskaya in the soprano role and it comes with the bonus of a long rehearsal sequence. The new recording comes close in many respects to challenging it and exceeds it in one important respect in that it allows us to see as well as hear the mighty forces involved. Not the least of the benefits of the video is seeing the sun set behind the ruins of the old cathedral as the floodlights come on.
For this performance the soprano has been elevated above the other soloists and stands with the choir, while tenor and baritone are together - appropriately since they often duet, especially in the moving final setting of Strange Meeting. Of the three it’s Mark Padmore who deserves to be mentioned first, but the others are not far behind. As a reminder of Padmore’s versatility, I’ve just been listening to him making an excellent job of the haute-contre role in Rameau’s Zoroastre, recently reissued by Warner/Erato. Here he is starring in a quite different part.
As John Quinn writes, he is simply outstanding. Britten wrote this and all his mature tenor parts with the voice of Peter Pears in mind, but I know that I’m not alone in having problems with Pears’ timbre. No such problems with Mark Padmore.
Erin Wall projects the soprano part extremely well; at times I thought the close-up of her facial expressions a trifle off-putting but they demonstrate how thoroughly she gets ‘into’ the meaning of the music. She has none of the Slavic wobble of Vishnevskaya, all too apparent in the latter’s singing of Sanctus.
My only reservation about Hanno Müller-Brachmann in the baritone part is his inability to make his words heard - so important in the poems. It’s apparently not because English is not his first language, since his pronunciation is excellent when he can be heard. John Quinn seems not to have had a problem with his diction; maybe actually being there made the difference. All reservations disappear when hearing that final duet where Padmore and Müller-Brachmann assume the roles of the doppelgänger in Owen’s poem; their voices even sound like opposite sides of the same coin.
Orchestra and choirs played their parts admirably but the overall accolade - man of the match, as it were - must go to Andris Nelsons for the wonderful way in which he holds the whole thing together. I’ve used the word ‘power’ several times but Nelson reminds us that there are moments when the War Requiem rivals the repose of the Fauré Requiem as well as the power of Verdi. Even if the master tapes and all copies of every other performance were to crumble as my reel-to-reel tape of that first performance did, this 50th-anniversay recording would still provide us with a wonderful opportunity to see and hear Britten’s masterpiece.
The recorded sound is very good. It demands something altogether grander than television speakers but it sounds excellent via the Cambridge Audio 651BD linked to my audio system. I imagine that it sounds even better in surround sound - I’ve yet to be persuaded into that area but I imagine that this would be the ideal argument for it, with the children’s choir physically separated from the main forces at the opposite end of the cathedral. The dynamic range is verging on the painful for domestic listening; if you set the volume to hear the opening Requiem the climaxes are close to uncomfortable. Part of the problem is that the really quiet choral parts tend to get lost in the acoustic more than the orchestra, as a result of which the balance between the two becomes uneven. With the multitude of microphones in evidence, perhaps the engineers could have done something to remedy this. Certainly I hear the male voices sing requiem æternam more clearly even on an mp3 download of the Decca recording than I do on this new blu-ray.
I don’t want to make too much of this, however; as John Quinn wrote in his review of the live concert, we now know the work so well that we are able mentally to fill in the bits that we don’t quite hear. He wondered whether those less favourably placed than he was would have heard Erin Wall clearly from her place above the other soloists; if they did have problems, they are not apparent from the recording.
The picture is crystal-clear. Even on a modest-sized screen the advantage of blu-ray over DVD is evident and the sound in that format is superior both to its older video competitor and to CD. I wonder how long the recording companies will continue to provide both video formats; at some stage they must inevitably decide that, as blu-ray players are backwards-compatible with DVD discs, that will become the only format, just as mono LPs were jettisoned. Blu-ray cases are also a more sensible size and shape.
Andris Nelsons slowly composes himself at the end of the music and there’s a huge pause before the well-deserved applause finally comes. Audience and performers alike must have been emotionally drained, such is the power of this performance. Don’t throw away Britten’s own recording on Decca - I simply had to play that recording all through the next day - but you must have this, too.
see also review of DVD release by John Quinn (November 2012 Recording of the Month)
War Requiem discography & review index
Even if all other recordings were destroyed, this would serve as a first-class reminder of the power of the War Requiem.
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