Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
War Requiem, Op. 66 (1962) [85:04]
Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 (1941) [21:47]
Ballad of Heroes, Op. 14 (1939) [18:17]
Heather Harper (soprano); Philip Langridge (tenor); Martyn Hill (tenor – Ballad); John Shirley-Quirk (bass-baritone); Choristers of St. Paul’s Cathedral; London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Richard Hickox
rec. 24-28 February 1991, St. Jude’s Church, Central Square, London
Texts and translations included
CHANDOS CHAN8983/84 [61:50 + 63:34]
The Britten centenary, closely followed by the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, occasioned a spate of recordings of War Requiem. I had the good fortune to consider several for MusicWeb International, including versions conducted by Karel Ančerl (review), Mariss Jansons (review), Paul McCreesh (review) and Antonio Pappano (review). These various reviews – and others – have caused me to make comparisons with other previous fine accounts in the catalogue, including those directed by Sir Simon Rattle (review) and the composer’s own inimitable recording (review). Yet though we now list reviews of no less than fourteen recordings of War Requiem in the Masterworks Index this one by Richard Hickox is conspicuous by its absence from that tally. There’s a good reason for that: this recording was issued back in 1991, before MusicWeb International was founded, and it has remained in the catalogue ever since, without being reissued, so there hasn’t been an opportunity for us to appraise it. However, this is an important part of the discography of the work so a review, though belated, seems appropriate.

Hickox was given a very distinguished trio of soloists. Heather Harper famously created the soprano solo role at the 1962 première when she stood in for Galina Vishnevskaya at just ten days’ notice. Understandably, when Britten came to make the first recording of the work a few months later, he wanted the three soloists for whose voices he had conceived the solo roles so Vishnevskaya, this time unimpeded by Soviet officialdom, took part. It is nothing short of scandalous that Harper had to wait nearly 30 years for an invitation to record this role. In recent years we’ve had the opportunity to hear her on CD in the very first performance (review) and in a 1967 live performance conducted by Ansermet (review). In both of those performances her voice was, of course, younger and, arguably, a bit fresher but in this Hickox version, made not long before she retired from singing in public, I believe, we can hear her under ideal studio conditions. What the voice may have lost in youthful bloom is more than compensated by unrivalled experience of the part. Harper is imperious at ‘Liber scriptus’, though I sense she has to work quite hard to project the lowest and highest notes of the cruelly wide tessitura. At the end of the Dies Irae, in very different music, she’s warmly expressive in the ‘Lacrymosa’. The commanding side of her voice is in evidence again at the start of the Sanctus while she offers glowing tone in the Benedictus. Dramatic and powerful in the opening stretches of the 'Libera me', she makes an increasingly impassioned contribution to the closing ensemble.

Philip Langridge, like his two colleagues, was a highly experienced Britten exponent, and it shows. His first solo, ‘What passing bells…’ typifies the incisiveness of his singing. In ‘Move him, Move him into the sun’ he is as poignantly expressive as you could wish, his singing becoming increasingly fraught with passion. In the Agnus Dei his plangent tones tug at the heart strings in the opening and closing sections while his final, rising phrase is unsettlingly vulnerable. His contribution to ‘Strange meeting’ is eloquent. Overall, this is a notable rendition of the solo tenor role.

Excellent though the other two soloists are, John Shirley-Quirk is simply outstanding. It’s been a while since I listened to this recording and, in truth, I’d forgotten just how good Shirley-Quirk is. In ‘Bugles sang’ his tone is ideally doleful. Though Langridge enunciates his various texts with great sensitivity, in this solo and elsewhere his baritone colleague is, if anything, even more responsive to the words and imaginative in his use of vocal colouring to put them across. He – and timpanist Neil Percy – are graphically menacing in ‘Be slowly lifted up..’ – listen to the bile in Shirley-Quirk’s tone as he spits out the word “arrogance”; his is a magnificent performance of this setting. Fittingly, in ‘Strange meeting’ he rises to new heights of eloquence; here he’s as insightful in his interpretation as any singer I’ve heard. I’ve heard some splendid recorded renditions of the baritone part in War Requiem and to be honest I don’t think John Shirley-Quirk need fear comparison with any – and I’m not forgetting Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. In truth this recording is a splendid reminder of the great talent of all three of these very fine soloists.

The LSO Chorus is on very fine form. I wonder if Richard Hickox trained them himself; he may have done since I think that at the time of this recording he was still their Chorus Director. Helped by the excellence of the Chandos sound the choir comes across with presence and clarity. The Choristers of St. Paul’s Cathedral, directed by John Scott, are truly excellent. Their first entry – ‘Te decet hymnus’ in the Requiem Aeternam movement - promises much in terms of focus of sound, clarity, confidence and rhythmic accuracy and that promise is fulfilled throughout the performance. They are not as distanced as some boy’s choirs that I’ve heard on disc.

The orchestral contribution is superb. The LSO took part in the very first recording of War Requiem in 1963 and the 1991 vintage is no less distinguished in its response. Aided by the Chandos engineers, the brass and percussion sections come across in a particularly thrilling way. In 1963 the Melos Ensemble served as the chamber orchestra but this time the ensemble that accompanies the male soloists is made up of LSO principals. The chamber orchestra is expertly incisive and flexible, as you might expect since players of the calibre of Hugh Maguire, Paul Silverthorne, Andrew Marriner and Osian Ellis are involved. In a nice touch Chandos list all the chamber orchestra players in the booklet.

Richard Hickox marshals these diverse forces expertly and with great authority. Once or twice I felt his approach to be expansive but never in a way that is troubling and he ensures that the great climaxes are thrust home – the dread, cathartic climax in the 'Libera me' (6:32) is as gut-wrenching and overwhelmingly intense as it should be, with the chorus sounding like despairing fallen souls, after which the descent into the stricken no-man’s land (the nuclear winter?) that ushers in ‘Strange meeting’ is handled in a masterly fashion. One of my few regrets is that Hickox isn’t as hushed or as daringly slow as Andris Nelsons at the start of the Libera me but, then, few conductors in my experience have been as bold as Nelsons in this passage (review). The complex closing ensemble is very well-handled. Hickox is just as alive to the many passages of poetry, no matter how bleak, that the score contains. I was convinced and gripped throughout.

The success of the project is greatly enhanced by the recording itself. Brian and Ralph Couzens have here produced a spectacular recording that does full justice to Britten’s vision. The sound has tremendous impact – the climaxes are shattering – but what impresses just as much is the detail; there are small features in the chamber orchestra parts that I don’t recall hearing before with such clarity. The production doesn’t match the spatial effects achieved by John Culshaw for Decca in 1963 but that would be the only way in which I’d “fault” it. In all honesty, though it’s now nearly 24 years old this recording can compete on an equal footing with any of the more recent versions that I’ve heard and, indeed, it’s more impressive than quite a few.

Unlike a good number of War Requiem recordings Chandos offer extra works. The couplings are as generous as they are logical. We by no means short of recordings of Sinfonia da Requiem but Ballad of Heroes is much less well known. I’m only aware of one other recording – though there may well have been others: the 1990 account by Simon Rattle (review). Chandos advertise this as a ‘premier recording’ though in fact the Rattle version was set down a few months earlier, in July 1990; I can only assume the Chandos disc came out first. How ironic that the work should have to wait over fifty years for a recording and then receive two within the space of a few months.

The work was intended as a contemporary tribute to those who were fighting Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War. In his useful notes Eric Roseberry suggests that the work was in some ways a dry run for Sinfonia da Requiem, not least in terms of its tri-partite structure. The three movements, which play continuously, are settings for tenor solo, chorus and orchestra of poems by W H Auden and by the English poet, Randall Swingler (1909-1967), who at that time was a member of the Communist Party. The work was written for a Festival of Music for the People in 1939. I don’t think much of it. The words are earnest and very much of their time. While Britten’s music is not without interest, especially in the orchestral parts, it didn’t fire me with great enthusiasm. The first movement, ‘Funeral March’, is a Swingler setting and here the choral writing is not very interesting at all. Auden supplies the words for the second movement, ‘Dance of Death’. Here the music is frenetic and sometimes brutal. I think Britten rather miscalculated in setting a wordy text to such fast music; it’s hard to make out the text and everything sounds a bit gabbled despite the best efforts of the LSO Chorus. This movement again shows the spectacular nature of the Chandos sound. The tenor soloist appears only in the third movement, ‘Recitative and Choral’, which is where I find the music most rewarding. Martyn Hill sings well, as does Robert Tear for Rattle – I tend to prefer the timbre of Hill’s voice. The EMI sound for Rattle is very good but it doesn’t quite match the Chandos sound. Hickox is a little more expansive than Rattle in the outer movements but not to any significant degree. It’s worthwhile to have this piece as part of the Hickox set and he makes a good case for it. However, perhaps I can best sum up my feelings about the music itself by saying that I bought this set many years ago and I’m pretty sure I’ve not listened again to the Ballad since then until it came to preparing this review.

If Ballad of Heroes is a fairly weak work the same is most certainly not true of Sinfonia da Requiem. This is a searing score and Hickox leads a fine account of it. The very opening, with its pounding drums, almost pins the listener to the wall so dramatically do the LSO percussionists project thanks to the Chandos recording. I don’t think I’ve ever heard these arresting drum strokes sound so dreadfully imposing. Hickox’s reading of the movement has great tension and the response of the LSO ranges from quiet refinement to electrifyingly potent. The brass are absolutely thrilling – the entire section was on fire during these recording sessions – while the percussion is stunningly recorded. The ‘Dies Irae’ movement is a real wild ride, albeit an expertly controlled ride. The playing spits and snarls with the LSO on virtuoso form. Finally, in the closing ‘Requiem Aeternam’ repose is attained, albeit an uneasy repose. This is a very fine recording of the work and I can’t recall hearing the score in better sound.

This, then, is a very fine set indeed. All three performances are very fine and War Requiem in particular stands as one of Richard Hickox’s finest achievements in the studio. This belongs on any shortlist of the very best recordings of the work. The documentation is very good, as we expect from Chandos and the sound is, as I’ve indicated more than once, resplendent. I don’t know if Chandos has any plans to issue Blu-Ray Audio discs but should they take that step then I would think this War Requiem ought to be a prime candidate for that medium.

These recordings are also available as a pair of SACDs (CHSA50072) but I haven’t heard them in that format.

John Quinn

Britten discography & review index

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