|Site review by Geohominid April 3, 2012
Performance: Sonics (S/MC): /
|Commissioned for celebrating the Consecration of the new St Michael's Cathedral in Coventry at the heart of England in 1963, Benjamin Britten gifted its radical architecture with an equally radical War Requiem. A culmination of his life-long disgust of War, was and still is an excoriating denouncement of all the trappings of conflict between nations and the cruelty and anguish which ensue.
For the Coventry Cathedral performance, Britten wanted three soloists from the opposing countries involved in Britain's last war, World War II. He chose English tenor Peter Pears, Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya and German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The English and Soviet Establishments were disturbed at the prospect of such "collaboration" at a high profile, symbolic occasion (perception of completion of this large new building was that it marked a final end to the tribulations of WWII). The Soviet government refused a passport for Vishnevskaya, and Britten had to substitute the English soprano Heather Harper.
The memorable first performance of the War Requiem was widely televised, in relays and news items across the world. Britten recorded it shortly after, this time with Vishnevskaya, and it sold 200,000 LP sets in the first six months after release. Performances of the War Requiem quickly became international, as did the making of recordings. Once such is van Zweden's, with predominantly Dutch performers. Dutch history is littered with wars and invasions, as is that of neighbouring Lowland countries, where Britten's message clearly finds an emotive place in modern hearts and minds. For his soloists, van Zweden chose an American tenor and Anthony Dean Griffey, an English baritone, Mark Stone. A Russian soprano, Evelina Dobracheva, adds a Slavic voice.
A live performance of this carefully and lovingly prepared War Requiem was recorded in Utrecht in May 2010 by Northstar for Challenge Classics in the Vredenburg's ample acoustic. A successful repeat concert was held at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in May 2011.
Britten was inspired by the vast space available in Coventry Cathedral to use five spatially separated groups of musicians. The Latin text of the Catholic Requiem Mass (representing Ritual) is sung by the 74 strong professional mixed voice Netherlands Radio Choir, of great experience and versatility. Singing with the choir is the soprano soloist. The main chorus is accompanied by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra seated in front of them.
Behind the main choir, and sounding distant as required by Britten, is the Netherland Children's Choir. Aged from 11-16, this is a mixed voice choir, something of a departure from Britten's requirement of a boy's choir (for which he had a proclivity). He wanted them to symbolize Purity and Innocence in the face of War, and given their fresh-sounding continental voice-production, the girls in the choir do just that. They sing the extra hymns which are part of the Liturgy for the dead. Accompanying the children's choir is a small organ of limited range,
Britten folds into the Requiem liturgy extracts of poetry by a soldier-poet from the 1914-18 World War.
Wilfred Owen, killed just before the Armistice, stripped war of any justice or glory. His terse, disturbing and sardonic words are sung by tenor and baritone soloists, accompanied by a 12-instrument chamber orchestra which has a separate conductor. On this recording, the solo protagonists and orchestra are in the foreground, occupying a zone between the right and centre-right.
Overall, van Zweden's reading has a thrilling sense of purposeful mission. He trims 3 minutes off Britten's estimated duration of 85 minutes marked in the Boosey & Hawkes full score. There is no sense of haste or lack of appropriate repose; this is a matter of sheer concentration and intensity.
The Netherlands Radio Choir respond with precision, clear diction and a sure understanding of their texts and Britten's expressive requirements. Hushed passages such as the Kyrie eleison in the Requiem aeternam section are breathtaking in their depth of soft tone and control at a very slow pace. The big choral climaxes, especially in the venomous Dies irae, are crisp and executed with rhythmically compelling zest. They also show vocal virtuosity, for example in the lead-in to the Sanctus, where Britten divides the choir into many separate parts, each freely chanting "pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua" in a climax from pp to ff, with the voices coming in sequentially. The relentless pagan-like muttering is the perfect lead-in for a blazing Sanctus, which van Zweden makes more brassy and primal than usual, with edgy brass expressing Britten's questioning of a God which allows onset and progress of wars,
The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (NRPO) are in top form for van Zweden, recently presented with Musical America's 2012 Conductor of the Year Award. Their role is to provide support for the chorus by setting atmospheres and underpinning emotions, and this they perform with a gamut of effects ranging from subtlety to brilliance. Given the clarity of recording, the war-wasted landscapes of Britten's War Requiem have rarely sounded so chilling or so real. The NRPO brass, in particular, are especially potent. Excellent too is the hand-picked chamber orchestra, whose colourful rendition of Britten's highly original instrumental narrative enhances the vocal ones.
Evelina Dobracheva's voice has similar slavic tone colour to Vishnevskaya, but is notably more stable. She is powerful both vocally and dramatically, working well with the choir. Her stern Liber scriptus solo, warning of impending judgement for the newly dead, is followed by an imperiously blazing Rex tremendae majestatis. Her heartbreaking Lachrymosa is tender, yet grieving.
The protagonists who represent the Owen poetry, Anthony Dean Griffey and Mark Stone, are vocally well-matched. Both follow Britten's wish that their parts should be sung with the greatest beauty. And so they do, with a clarity of diction which is exemplary. They show deep inner understanding of Owen's often archaic prose, laced with allegory and metaphor, and inflect their lines with touching empathy. Their duet "Out there" eerily portrays two soldiers, assumed to be a German and an Englishman, meeting in death and comparing their lives as military men. The cold deliberation of Mark Stone's verse "Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm, great gun towering to Heaven, about to curse" is absolutely terrifying, surrounded by slammed drums and clashing gong. This raised the hairs on the back of my neck as never before, and brought me to tears.
There are many more felicities, too many to detail in this review. In passing I note the lucidity which van Zweden and his team bring to the Quam olim Abrahae sequences, Owen's metaphor where Abraham is forced to sacrifice his son "and half the seed of Europe". The music here was adapted from Britten's own Canticle II on the Bible story. Therealso emerged for me many references to Elgar's 'Dream of Gerontius' (of which Britten was a magnificent conductor). Much of the baritone role is in the style of the Priest in Gerontius, and the glorious final section of the War Requiem, "Let us sleep now" pays homage to the 'Angel's Farewell" of Elgar's oratorio.
Sonically, Northstar's DSD-originated recording gives a magnificently spacious sound-stage with great depth and sharp focus. The naturalness of the sound is at times astonishing compared with many other recordings I have listened to, details revealed partly because of the greater capture and trueness of instrumental and vocal timbres. The various bells used by Britten are astonishingly tangible, as are the attack wavefronts of the excellent bass drum and other deep instruments like the tuba. The soloist's voices are completely present too, with every tiny timbral colour plain to hear. Of course there is no applause, and remarkably little audience noise; I noticed a few platform noises between sections, perhaps where choir members were sitting down or standing; only one discrete cough passed by in the big auditorium. None of this extraneous noise was bothersome, it just reinforced the feeling of being at the performance.
This two-disc set has no fill-ups, like most other recordings; what else might one want to listen too after this emotional music finishes? The Netherlands performers, together with their soloists, were clearly dedicated as a whole large ensemble, to the extent that every person concerned is named in the booklet. All praise too for the several choral directors and the second conductor, Reinbert de Leeuw.
A War Requiem which affected me deeply. It powerfully conveys Britten's prime moral message to generations beyond the composer himself, at a time when those soldier comrades of Wilfred Owens are now nearly extinct in body. They still live, however, in memory. Britten's peerless Decca recording is still unique, but its sonics are now dated. Here is a fine War Requiem for the 2000s, excellent in performance and sound.
Copyright © 2012 John Miller and SA-CD.net