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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
War Requiem, Op. 66 [81:14]
BBC Radio introduction [3:21} & concluding announcement [1:15]
Heather Harper (soprano); Peter Pears (tenor); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone); Coventry Festival Choir; Boys of Holy Trinity, Loughborough & Holy Trinity, Stratford; John Cooper (organ)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Meredith Davies
Melos Ensemble/Benjamin Britten
rec. live, 30 May, 1962, Coventry Cathedral.
Nocturne, Op 60 [26:35]
BBC Radio introduction [0:35] & concluding announcement [0:35]
Peter Pears (tenor)
Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
rec. live 21 June 1959, Orford Church, Suffolk, UK
Our Hunting Fathers, Op 8 [26:14]
BBC Radio introduction [0:52] & concluding announcement [0:14]
Peter Pears (tenor)
London Symphony Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
rec. live 15 June 1961, BBC Maida Vale Studio 1
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO166 [63:01 + 77:19]

The live recording of the world premiere of War Requiem was issued by Testament on CD in 2013 (review). Now we have a new transfer from Pristine. There are a number of important differences between the two releases, which I’ll attempt to summarise.

Testament released War Requiem as a single CD with a playing time of 80:48. Pristine have spread the work onto a second disc. This has allowed Andrew Rose to give the work a bit more breathing space, as he puts it. He has also retained the BBC’s spoken introduction and closing announcement. That’s quite important, actually. The introduction is quite extended and it’s rather good. Hearing the announcer top and tail the performance adds to the sense of occasion, though these spoken passages are separately tracked, so you can skip them if you want. The other advantage of Pristine’s use of a second disc is that the gaps between movements have been retained in full. So, for example, you get a break of nearly a minute – with all the noises of the audience and performers shuffling in their places – after the ‘Dies irae’. That enhances the sense of experiencing an occasion.

Another difference is that Pristine divide War Requiem into 26 tracks, which is slightly more generous than Testament’s 19 tracks. Where Testament score, however, is in the provision of documentation. Neither release offers texts and translations (though Testament offer these as a PDF download). Actually, the lack of texts may not be a huge issue on this occasion since I doubt many people will buy this recording as a first choice and so they’ll probably have ready access to the texts from another recording. Testament enjoys a significant advantage in that they provide an excellent booklet essay by the Britten biographer Paul Kildea. He explains the context of the premiere in some detail. By contrast, Pristine offer a short note which is so general as to be of very limited value indeed. Pristine offer two extra Britten works on their second disc: I’ll come to those in a while.

The crucial question, though, is which issue offers the best sound? Andrew Rose has worked from two sources. He comments: “Although a mono broadcast, the use of Ambient Stereo coupled with a delicate touch of authentic cathedral ambience, helps broaden out the sound and heighten the impression of size and space that must have been so impressive to hear in Coventry Cathedral in May 1962.” Having done quite extensive A/B comparisons I’d say that his transfer is preferable to Paul Baily’s good Testament transfer. The Pristine sound has more impact and presence; it’s bright and up front. The chorus and main orchestra are the principal beneficiaries – the difference between the sound quality for the male soloists and chamber orchestra is less marked, though here too I think Pristine has an edge. It has to be said, though, that the greater clarity of the Pristine sound puts the chorus and CBSO under a more merciless scrutiny and so the shortcomings of the performance are more audible. One person who registers magnificently in both transfers is Heather Harper. She sings imperiously – try her majestic delivery of ‘Liber scriptus’ – and one would never know simply from listening to her that she took on this assignment at 10 days’ notice, so assured is her projection of the music.

Elsewhere, the brass have much more presence at the start of the ‘Dies irae’ – and the listener has a greater sense of acoustic space around the sound. That said, the clarity of the sound makes all the more evident the fact that the CBSO horns are less than 100% secure in this passage. The Testament transfer has the boys’ choir sounding more at a distance and I rather like that.

I described the performance in my review of the Testament release and my view hasn’t changed. All three soloists are very fine, the boys’ choir does well and the contribution of the Melos Ensemble is incisive at all times. Britten was pretty scathing about the CBSO, which he described as “pretty second rate” and he was even harsher on the chorus, which he summed up as “deplorable”. I think he was a little less than fair, especially as regards the chorus. This was an ad-hoc group, formed from various local choirs and brought together just for the Coventry Cathedral Festival. Not only did they have to learn Britten’s demanding score, but also they were expected to master another new work, The Beatitudes by Bliss. Someone in Coventry ought to have realised the scale of the challenge; of course, the foundation of the CBSO Chorus lay more than a decade in the future. The Coventry Festival Choir do their best but it would be idle to pretend that they were up to the standards to which we’ve become accustomed since 1962. Neither were the CBSO of 1962 up to the same standard as the orchestra subsequently attained. There’s one particularly perilous moment at the start of ‘Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm’ when the orchestral trumpeter misses his cue for the first of a series of interjectory fanfares (Track 12, 0:14). After what seems like an interminable hiatus Britten, Fischer-Dieskau and the chamber orchestra plough on while the trumpeter determinedly plays each one of his fanfares one entry late. Somehow, Meredith Davies pulls it all together at the reprise of ‘Dies irae’ but goodness knows how he did it.

So, there are many flaws in this performance, but at the same time there is a palpable sense of occasion and one gets some insight into the profound impression the work must have made on that first audience – at the conclusion the audience was specifically requested to withhold applause. This is an important audio document.

One disc two we also hear Peter Pears in two orchestral song cycles with Britten conducting on both occasions. The performance of Nocturne was given in the very resonant acoustic of Orford Church and the balance is such that Pears seems to be singing at some distance – perhaps he was standing in the pulpit. His voice, though it can be clearly heard, seems to be behind the obbligato instruments. Our Hunting Fathers is heard in a performance recorded in the BBC’s Maida Vale studios. As a consequence, this recording comes in the best – and best balanced – sound. I’m afraid I don’t care for this work in the slightest but it’s valuable to have both works in these live performances.

War Requiem will be the big draw, however, and which set should I recommend? If you have the Testament recording already, I think you can rest content. This is, after all, an archive recording of a performance that is not flawless and Paul Baily’s Testament transfer is perfectly satisfactory. However, the Pristine transfer is more vivid and so this is now the version of choice if you want to hear how War Requiem sounded when it was unveiled to the world. This performance can only be a complement to one of the fine modern recordings of the work, including Britten’s own justly famous Decca version but what is offered here is an important audio document and anyone who admires War Requiem and is inspired by it should hear this recording.

If you want to learn more about the fascinating story of the genesis of War Requiem and the preparations for its Coventry premiere then I wholeheartedly recommend Michael Foster’s very valuable book, The Idea was Good (review).

John Quinn



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