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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 Here we have three previously unpublished live Britten performances, including the Czech première of War Requiem, all conducted by the great Karel Ančerl.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.
 
John Quinn
 
Britten discography

Masterwork Index: War Requiem


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