The curious case of Benjamin Britten

The curious case of Benjamin Britten

Recordings of the War Requiem have been blessed with luck, and the latest one ranks among the greatest

The curious case of Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, composed for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962 (the 14th-century structure had been destroyed by bombs during the Second World War), has been lucky where recordings are concerned.

BENJAMIN BRITTEN: War Requiem . Ian Bostridge (tenor), Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Sabina Cvilak (soprano) London Symphony Chorus, Choir of Eltham College, London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. LSO Live (SACD or download)

The original version, conducted by the composer and featuring the soloists from three combatant nations, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya from the Soviet Union, tenor Peter Pears from England, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau from Germany, for whom Britten wrote the work, belongs on any shortlist of great recordings. None of the other accounts recorded to date, and there have been quite a few, has quite equalled it, but Richard Hickox's Chandos recording from 1991, and now this new Noseda performance come close.

The War Requiem is a work that intermixes the text of the Latin Requiem Mass with poems by Wilfred Owen, a British poet killed in World War I.

The subject of the poems is, in Owens's words, "the pity of war", and the combined effect of Britten's sensitive settings of his words and of the Latin mass is intensely moving. Some sections, the sequence that combines Owens's Move Him, Move Him Into The Sun with the Latin Lacrimosa, and the later one that joins the Libera Me, with Owens's Strange Meeting, are wrenchingly powerful in a strong performance like this new one.

Today most listeners hear the War Requiem as a major work, but in its early years not everyone was impressed.

One of its severest critics was the curmudgeonly Stravinsky, who jeered at its tearful reception by British critics.

"Behold the critics as they vie in abasement before the wonder of native-born genius," he wrote in Themes And Episodes (or possibly it was his editor Robert Craft, whom some have suspected of being the ventriloquist behind some of the more elegantly abusive passages). "Kleenex at the ready, and feeling as though one had failed to stand up for God Save The Queen, one goes from the critics to the music," he continues, and finds, not surprisingly and among other things, evidence of the influence of his own music.

Those influences are certainly there, but then, who has escaped the influence of Stravinsky?

The choral singing by the London Symphony Chorus under Noseda is even better than it was under Britten in the debut recording.

Noseda often takes brisker tempos than the composer did, and passages like Confutatis Maledictus and the return of the Dies Irae as an outburst before the soprano Lacrimosa have a power here that no earlier account that I have heard can match.

The effect of the mounting layers of choral sound in the freely-chanted Pleni Sunt Coeli and the leaping cries of the chorus and the brass in the Hosanna are all thrilling here.

It is in the contributions of the vocal soloists that this new performance falls a little short of what the composer achieves in his 1963 recording.

Among tenors performing now, it is hard to think of anyone more capable of doing justice to Britten's Owen settings than Ian Bostridge, but while listening to him here I found him a little theatrical at times. He doesn't communicate the deep emotional involvement that Peter Pears brings to the music. Compare the two artists singing the Move Him, Move Him Into The Sun passage and the difference becomes clear.

Simon Keenlyside is also a superb interpreter of Britten's writing for baritone in the War Requiem, but Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was in a class by himself in music like this.

In the passage at the end where Bostridge and Keenlyside sing together, the devastating setting of Strange Meeting where a soldier, in the post-death darkness, encounters the enemy soldier whom he killed in battle, they are strongly moving, but they don't leave the listener emotionally flattened in the way the Pears and Fischer-Dieskau do.

Much the same is true of soprano soloist Cvilak. She has the sharp-edged, lacerating Slavic soprano sound that Vishnevskaya had, and sings more accurately and with more beautiful tone, but the surging power that the Russian singer brings to, for example, the Liber Scriptus, feels scaled down here.

These difference will only be noticed by listeners who are familiar with the old recording, and even they will concede the many superiorities of this new one.

The chorus and orchestra perform with a fervour the same forces did not match in 1963, and the modern recording allows all of the music to be heard.

It is a pleasure to finally be able to hear everything that is happening in the big, dense climaxes in the Libera Me section and after the "Let us sleep now" utterance at the conclusion.

I listened to the two-CD version of this recording through a multi-channel home theatre system, and also listened to it in stereo, and noticed only slight differences. The finely-engineered, spacious recording sounds find either way.

The copy discussed here was purchased online from

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