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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) War Requiem, Op. 66 (1961-62) [79:27] The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34 (1946)* [17:13] Spring Symphony, Op. 44 (1948-49)** (sung in Czech) [42:55]
Naděžda Kniplová (soprano); Gerald English (tenor); John Cameron (baritone); **Milada Šubrtová (soprano); **Věra Soukupová (alto); **Beno Blachut (tenor)
Prague Philharmonic Choir; Kühn Children’s Chorus
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Ančerl
rec. live, 13 January 1966, *3 May 1958; **17 January 1964
Original texts, Czech * and English translations included SUPRAPHON SU 4135-2 [80:36 + 60:45]
This must be one of the more unexpected Britten centenary issues.
Here we have three previously unpublished live Britten performances,
including the Czech première of War Requiem, all conducted
by the great Karel Ančerl.
Ančerl’s discography attests to his strong advocacy of
twentieth century music. He’s especially renowned for his work
in the Russian and Czech repertoire. However, the booklet note points
out that the music of Britten featured quite often in his programmes.
He first conducted The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
in 1957. The performance preserved here was given the following year,
quite possibly around the time that he made his commercial recording
of it for Supraphon. The performance of Spring Symphony is
one of a series of three that the conductor gave in Prague at that
time; whether the piece featured in his programmes at other times
I don’t know. The account of War Requiem was, as I mentioned
above, the first performance of the work in Czechoslovakia and one
wonders whether this was a courageous choice of repertoire at that
time. Ančerl gave the work again in Toronto in 1969 with Gerald
English once more as one of his soloists - I wonder how many prior
performances had been given in Canada - and he programmed other pieces
by Britten during his time leading the Toronto Symphony.
Ančerl demonstrates a fine grip on the score. There are some
drawbacks to this recording and it’s as well to mention these
at the outset. A good deal of orchestral detail is dimly heard and,
unfortunately, the chamber orchestra is far too recessed in the sound
picture. Another disappointment is that at times the choir either
doesn’t sing softly enough - at the very start, for instance
- or else is too closely recorded. I rather think it’s more
a matter of dynamics because some quiet passages, such as the ‘Kyrie’
at the end of the first movement or the choral contribution to the
Agnus Dei, are well done. However, as I listened I felt that the essential
spirit of the music was definitely being conveyed and for that
much of the credit must go to the conductor.
So, for example, though the dynamic levels deprive us of much of a
feeling of suspense at the very start - and again at the start of
the Libera me - Ančerl ensures that the ‘Dies Irae’
is dramatic and he generates great power in the ‘Hosannas’
in the Sanctus and Benedictus. His handling of the concluding ‘Let
us sleep now’ ensemble is also impressive. For the most part
the tenor and bass solo sections are done well though I wish Ančerl
could have persuaded Gerald English to be more imaginative in his
solo during ‘Strange meeting’. Overall, however, I find
Ančerl’s interpretation very convincing.
Two Anglophone singers were engaged for this performance. I’m
a little wary of judging because this performance took place less
than four years after the première so the performing tradition
of the work was still being established and the exemplars in the roles
at that time were Pears and Fischer-Dieskau. The other thing that
gives me pause for thought is that there have been so many notable
exponents of these parts since then - Bostridge, Padmore, Keenlyside
and Hampson are just four names that spring readily to mind - that
we are rather spoiled. Nonetheless, for all the virtues of their singing
- including well-focused tone, clarity of diction and pinpoint accuracy
- I do feel that both singers inflect the words with rather less imagination
and feeling than do several singers one has heard. English is particularly
disappointing in his solo in ‘Strange meeting’, which
he takes quickly and with little sense of horror or fear - John Cameron
is much more characterful when he takes over in this setting. Cameron,
too, sometimes is a little lacking in imagination: ‘Be slowly
lifted up’ is sung strongly but I hear no menace. Having said
all that, both soloists offer much that is positive: English’s
singing is consistently clear and incisive and Cameron has a fine,
rounded tone and an excellent sense of line. I just feel that neither
really conveys enough poetry or deep feeling; generally, their approach
is straightforward and direct and not as subtly nuanced as I’ve
heard from a number of soloists in other performances.
Ančerl chose a good soprano. Naděžda Kniplová
(b. 1932) was not an artist I’d encountered before but she makes
a good showing here. She projects the ‘Liber scriptus’
powerfully and accurately. This section and the start of the Sanctus
show that she’s fully up to the work’s histrionic challenges.
Just as impressive as her compelling singing in those passages, however,
is her gentle approach to the Benedictus. She’s suitably intense
in the ‘Lacrymosa’.
The choral contribution is generally good, notwithstanding my reservations
about soft dynamics. The ladies sound a bit matronly in ‘Recordare’
and ideally I’d like more bite in the men’s singing of
the ‘Confutatis’. However, elsewhere the choir does well
- there’s vigour in the first airing of the ‘Quam olim
Abrahae’ fugue and plenty of punch in the ‘Dies irae’.
The boys’ choir is very good.
Overall, there’s much to admire about this performance. The
recording is satisfactory given its age and the fact that it stems
from a live concert rather than studio conditions. I regret that the
instrumental parts are not ideally balanced but at least the choir
is clearly heard. In general I’d say there’s a lack of
front-to-back perspective in the sound.
The live performance of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
is a very good one. Lots of orchestral detail can be heard - and not
just because the recording is pretty good for its age - and the playing
of the Czech Philharmonic is excellent. The concluding fugue - taken
as a genuine presto - is very exciting. This is the sole performance
on the set that is not followed by applause.
For Anglophone listeners the prospect of hearing Spring Symphony
sung in a Czech translation may seem a distinctly odd one. However,
the performance itself contains much to enjoy. The Prague Philharmonic
Choir sings well and they - or the engineers - are more attentive
to soft dynamics than was the case in War Requiem, As a result,
Ančerl is able to generate an excellent degree of tension in
the opening of the work. The Kühn Children’s Chorus also
makes a notable contribution, offering pert, bright and breezy singing
in ‘The driving boy’ and singing ‘Sumer is icumen
in’ with pleasing gusto in the finale. The soloists also do
a very good job. The pick of them is Beno Blachut, whose sappy, athletic
tenor is an asset. Věra Soukupová offers some very committed
singing though some may feel her tone is just a bit too full and Central
European for this music. Milada šubrtová’s clear
soprano is heard to good advantage in her duet with Blachut, ’Fair
and fair’, and in the finale. I didn’t find the use of
Czech a great drawback - and, truth to tell, the choir’s words
aren’t that distinct anyway.
Ančerl’s direction of the score is impressive. He’s
clearly committed to the music and he ensures that rhythms are crisply
articulated. I’ve already mentioned the tension he generates
in the Introduction; he does that elsewhere too. The finale is dynamic,
vivid and colourful. There’s much to commend in this performance
and its appearance as part of this set is very welcome.
As I said at the start, this is a somewhat unexpected issue. The recordings
will be primarily of interest to Karel Ančerl’s many admirers,
of which I’m certainly one. I’m very glad to have heard
these discs and it’s good to have confirmation, through these
recordings, that under the guidance of this fine conductor Czech audiences
in the 1960s were able to hear some very faithful and committed performances
of these works. Supraphon have produced the set well. The transfers
are good and despite the fact that these are live recordings from
some fifty years ago sonic limitations don’t preclude enjoyment.
There are useful notes in Czech, English, French and German. The texts
are provided in English and Czech but only as a PDF document which
is included on the second disc.