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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1975)
War Requiem (1962) [83:44]
Sabina Cvilak (soprano), Ian Bostridge (tenor), Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Eltham College Choir, London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. live, October 2011, Barbican, London
ALTO ALC2029 [46:33 + 37:11]

This is a most welcome re-issue.  It originally appeared on the LSO LIVE label back in 2011, and has now been mastered for Alto by Paul Arden-Taylor.  Most lovers of this great work will resist being lured away from its original recording – Britten conducting, soloists Pears, Fischer-Dieskau and Vishnevskaya, with the choral and orchestral forces as at the Coventry Cathedral première.  The most recent Decca issue of that recording also includes an invaluable CD of excerpts from Britten’s rehearsals. Although it was made in Kingsway Hall, not in the cathedral, there is an immediacy, a freshness and intensity about that recording that could never be totally supplanted.

However, I was immensely moved and impressed by this Noseda performance.  I regret that I wasn’t present to hear it live; but I have heard the War Requiem in the Barbican (Rostropovich conducting), and, though the acoustics have always had their critics, I have no doubt that they are more suitable than those of Coventry Cathedral, which sent Britten into the depths of despair when he realised what he and his performers were up against.  This recording benefits from crystalline clarity, and, given the October date of the recording, a thankfully unbronchitic audience.

Yet there is an unmistakably live ‘tingle’ about the whole thing, and Noseda and his soloists add value, with new insights into all their great passages.  Bostridge and Keenlyside are superbly matched and have a natural understanding of the Britten idiom. Bostridge gives a mesmerising version of ‘Futility’, while Keenlyside is spine-chilling in ‘Be slowly lifted up’ and other places.  Soprano Sabina Cvilak is a lighter-voiced soloist than Vishnevskaya (or of course another great soprano, Heather Harper, who actually gave the first performance), but Cvilak’s vocal youthfulness brings a welcome new colour to the music.  All three are committed and wholly convincing protagonists.
The LSO are on great form, with the brass magnificent in the Dies Irae fanfares.  The chamber orchestra, which accompanies the soloists’ Wilfred Owen settings, is not separately credited, so I assume that it must also consist of LSO players – and very fine they are too.  The Sanctus is the one movement which I find actually superior here to the Britten recording; its opening for, soprano and gamelan-like percussion, is more spacious, with the choir’s crescendo ‘muttering’ immensely atmospheric; then the big passage that follows simply blows your socks off – stunning!  The LSO trumpets, here and elsewhere, are in absolutely top form, which means world-beating (even though these were post-Murphy days.)

But the back-bone of this work is the chorus; if they are not up to it, the work will, inevitably, struggle to make its full impact.  I have never heard the LSC deliver a finer recorded performance than this. They are at their absolute best in all four sections, and are aided by a perfect balance between themselves and the orchestra.  The final climax of the Libera Me is utterly terrifying, and the way ‘Strange Meeting’ emerges from it captures the sense of escape into deep tunnels below the carnage. Finally, let’s not forget the boys of Eltham College, who are confident and musically alert throughout.
Through all of this, Gianandrea Noseda paces the piece with a remarkable sureness of touch and has obviously communicated his wishes to the whole ensemble with clarity and passion.

The recording is remarkably fine, as I have already indicated.  The chorales at the end of the first, second and final movements (Disc 1 tracks 4 and 14, disc 2 track 8) are of course extremely quiet, and, if listened to at high volume, there is a little ‘noise’, but not enough seriously to damage the musical effect in these crucial passages.

As the work rose to its final oceanic climax, I was incredibly uplifted; this recording takes its place alongside Britten’s own as a deeply satisfying account of this masterpiece – one that seems greater and more relevant with every passing year. Were this a new release, rather than a reissue, it would undoubtedly have been a Recording of the Month.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review (LSO Live): Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)

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