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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
War Requiem, Op. 66 (1962) [84:05]
Susan Gritton (soprano); John Mark Ainsley (tenor); Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Wrocław Philharmonic Choir; Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme; Trebles of the Choir of New College, Oxford
Gabrieli Consort and Players/Paul McCreesh
rec. 5-9 January 2013, Watford Colosseum; 26 February 2013, Birmingham Town Hall; 15 March 2013, Church of St Michael & All Angels, Summertown, Oxford.
Latin and English texts and English and Polish translations included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD340 [37:20 + 46:45]

This is the third collaboration on disc between the Gabrieli Consort and Players and the members of the Wrocław Philharmonic Choir, the unifying force being Paul McCreesh. It follows their outstanding recordings of the Berlioz Grand Messe des Morts (review) and Mendelssohn’s Elijah (review). Those two recordings were distinguished not only on account of the excellent musical performances but also through the scrupulous research undertaken by McCreesh and his colleagues to use instrumental forces that gave a good idea of the sounds that would have been heard by contemporary audiences. Here, by contrast, they turn their attentions to a work that was first heard just fifty-one years ago.
 
There are some works that people are wont to say are ‘lucky’ on record. I’m not sure how much luck comes into it; I suspect it’s more a case that certain works inspire the performers to give something special and War Requiem comes into that category. The catalogue already contains several very fine recordings. Britten’s own is hors concours, especially in its most recent incarnation which includes, as an invaluable appendix, substantial rehearsal extracts (review). The MusicWeb Britten discography lists a further 19 recordings - to which must now be added this newcomer - among which I’d particularly single out those by Giulini with Britten (BBC Legends), Hickox (Chandos), Andris Nelsons (review), Gianandrea Noseda (review) and Rattle (review). The live 1967 performance conducted by Ansermet is also well worth hearing, not least because among the soloists are Heather Harper, much earlier in her career than when she recorded the work with Hickox, and the late Thomas Hemsley, who never took part in a studio recording (review).
 
So this newcomer enters a distinguished field. One element that marks it out immediately is the contribution of Christopher Maltman who gives one of the best, most nuanced performances of the baritone solo role that I’ve ever heard. It’s surely no accident that Maltman has a fine reputation as an interpreter of art song; his talents in that field are much in evidence here. He catches the pathos and melancholy of ‘Bugles sang’ marvellously, deploying a fine and easy legato in a most expressive rendition of this part of the score. That’s an intimate piece but he’s just as successful in the more histrionic ‘Be slowly lifted up …’ which he sings with great power and authority. In ‘After the blast of lightning’ he really captures the listener’s attention with some expertly controlled quiet singing while in his half of ‘Strange meeting’ he makes use of a telling range of vocal colouring in a tremendous performance. He’s also a fine partner for John Mark Ainsley in their two duets: the re-telling of the story of Abraham and Isaac is very well done while ‘Out there’ conveys excellently the sardonic bite of Britten’s setting.
 
Ainsley is a highly experienced Britten singer and it shows. His is a fine reading of the tenor part although I fear I’ve been rather spoiled by the performances of Ian Bostridge (Noseda) and Mark Padmore (Nelsons). Ainsley has a different vocal timbre to these two singers; he doesn’t have the same plangency and edge in his voice but, like them, he sings with much intelligence and with feeling. He’s very expressive in ‘Move him into the sun’ and shows - as he does throughout the work - great care for the words in the tenor solo in the Agnus Dei: Padmore, however, is unforgettable here, especially in the poignant final rising phrase. At the start of ‘Strange meeting’ I look for a vocal timbre that’s more drained of colour than Ainsley offers but his is by no means a negligible account of this gaunt music. He brings a great deal to the tenor part overall.
 
The third soloist is Susan Gritton. She is suitably imperious at ‘Liber scriptus’, bringing to this passage the vocal power than I missed in the singing of Erin Wall on the Nelsons DVD. She’s equally imposing at the start of the Sanctus while in the Benedictus she offers some excellent gentle singing and she makes a fine contribution to the closing ensemble. Throughout, her singing evidences great commitment and this is one of the best things I’ve heard her do, either live or on disc.
 
The substantial choir comprises the professional singers of the Gabrieli Consort, Polish singers from Wrocław and a goodly contingent from the estimable Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme. Splendid choral singing has been a notable feature of McCreesh’s Berlioz and Mendelssohn recordings and it’s just as evident here. I was impressed with the clarity in passages such as ‘Tuba mirum’ and in the first, loud rendition of the ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ fugue, in which there’s excellent definition; the soft reprise of that material is also well done though I have heard it delivered even more quietly - by the CBSO Chorus for Nelsons, for instance. The ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ section of the Sanctus is done as well as I’ve ever heard it. The sound grows from nothing to a clamorous tumult - McCreesh builds it superbly, his singers totally responsive - and then the ‘Hosanna’, resplendent with braying horns, is thrilling.
 
In addition to the main chorus there’s a crucial part for a small choir of trebles. The Choristers of New College, Oxford are confident and completely accurate, as you’d expect. The one reservation I have is that their sound strikes me as just a little too cultivated - I’d have liked more edge to the tone - but that’s a subjective matter. They were recorded separately from the main ensemble, it seems, which I’m not sure often happens. However, the boys are supposed to be placed at a distance from the other performers so the separate recording isn’t an issue in practice. Incidentally, we learn from the booklet that the New College choir’s long-serving Director of Music, Edward Higginbottom, turned the pages for the organist - his organ teacher - at the first performance of War Requiem.
 
The instrumental playing is superb. The hand-picked chamber orchestra, which includes the members of the excellent Carducci String Quartet in its ranks, offers razor-sharp playing which does full justice to the piquant accompaniments that Britten provided for the male soloists - though ‘accompaniment’ is the wrong word; these are richly illustrative commentaries on the poems in their own right. The one very minor disappointment is that the timpani are not as forceful as I would like right at the start of ‘Be slowly lifted up …’ The main orchestra is just as proficient in every department and though it may be invidious to do any singling out the contributions of the brass and percussion are unfailingly thrilling. The decision to dub in the Birmingham Town Hall organ - as on McCreesh’s Elijah recording - is vindicated above all by the impact it makes at the apocalyptic climax in the last movement that precedes ‘Strange meeting’. In the booklet Angus Smith, one of the tenors in the choir, describes this terrifying climax (at 6:27) as “a ‘mushroom cloud’ moment”. What a telling phrase and it’s borne out in this performance.
 
Paul McCreesh yet again shows himself to have full command of very large forces. He clearly has the measure of the work and if one didn’t know just from listening to the performance it’s evident from his comments in the booklet that he feels this score deeply. His control is especially impressive - the whole of the Sanctus evidences that as does his building up of the ‘Libera me’ from its hushed, menacing beginning to the aforementioned climax. The way he shapes and steers the long final ensemble in which, at last, all the forces are united, is deeply impressive. Earlier, and on a much smaller scale, his direction of the passages involving the male soloists and the chamber orchestra is, according to need, incisive or poetic - and often both.
 
Essentially the same recording team has worked on this recording and on McCreesh’s two preceding large-scale choral recordings and once again they have produced superb results. There’s great clarity, even in the most fully scored passages, and the sound has a genuine presence. The big climaxes really pack a punch but the many quiet passages are equally well served by the engineers. As is usual with these Winged Lion/Signum recordings the presentation is first class. The discs are housed in a hardback book-style case and the comprehensive documentation includes very good notes and several short personal reflections on War Requiem, including several by people who were involved in the first performance in Coventry Cathedral. There is also a large number of highly evocative and discerningly selected black and white photographs. Incidentally English-speaking collectors should not overlook the Polish section of the booklet because the photographs are different there. The only disappointment is that each movement is contained in one single track. Among the versions I have in my collection only those conducted by Hickox and by Jaap van Zweden (review) are presented in this way. All the others offer a number of tracks within each movement, with each Owen setting separately tracked. That seems infinitely preferable to me.
 
This is a very worthy contribution to the Britten centenary celebrations and it’s also a notable addition to the discography of War Requiem. As I said at the outset, there are several very fine recordings of the work in the catalogue and all those that I’ve heard offer much to the listener. Britten’s own recording is a mandatory purchase and I also think that the Andris Nelsons DVD is a very special experience - and not just for those who, like myself, were privileged to be in Coventry Cathedral for that 50th anniversary performance. However, if you want an audio recording to complement Britten’s performance then this new McCreesh performance has a great deal to commend it. 
 
One final thought. I see from the booklet that Paul McCreesh stepped down as Artistic Director of the Wratislavia Cantans Festival last year after a six-year stint. The very fruitful Anglo-Polish collaboration that he spearheaded during that time has already brought us three splendid large-scale choral/orchestral recordings. I do hope that this recording of War Requiem won’t be the last from this source and that the collaboration will continue.
 
John Quinn

Britten discography & review index: War requiem

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