War Requiem, Op.66
Sabina Cvilak (soprano), Ian Bostridge (tenor) & Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
Choir of Eltham College
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Recorded on 9 & 11 October 2011 at Barbican Hall, London
LSO0719 (2 CDs)
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30 May 2012 – this review is published exactly fifty years to the date of the first performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in the newly-rebuilt Coventry Cathedral (destroyed in World War Two), the composer directing the male soloists (Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) and Melos Ensemble with Meredith Davies conducting the soprano (Heather Harper), choruses and full orchestra, the CBSO. The following year Britten set-down War Requiem for Decca, with the LSO.
In October 2011 Gianandrea Noseda stepped in to conduct these LSO concerts (and LSO Live recording) of War Requiem when ill-health obliged Sir Colin Davis to cut back on his commitments. While it is a cause for profound regret that we may now have missed the chance to document Sir Colin conducting one of Britten’s masterpieces, the London Symphony Orchestra certainly made an inspired choice in selecting his replacement, for Noseda conducts the most blazing War Requiem I have heard in any circumstances – and the sound-quality (SACD-compatible) is a jaw-dropper.
It’s not perfect, mind, so let’s get the grumble out of the way. Unsurprisingly, this concerns the dry Barbican Hall acoustic, which the engineers have captured with such fidelity and immediacy that sonic spectacle carries the day over aural tapestry. In reviewing Lorin Maazel’s recent interpretation of War Requiem in the Royal Festival Hall I wrote that “the work’s many-layered textures belong in vaster spaces, with the two male soloists and chamber orchestra in the foreground, the soprano set in the middle distance along with the choral forces, and the boys’ choir and chamber organ echoing beatifically from aloft and afar.” With Noseda’s version no such distinction applies; we’re up close with everyone involved.
The performance, though, is electric. From the hushed tones of the opening ‘Requiem aeternam’ – so intimate that the London Symphony Chorus seems to be whispering in our ears – to the tragic stillness of the final “Amen”, there is an urgency present that rages against the pity of war. Was there ever a ‘Confutatis maledictis’ of such savagery? Of Wilfred Owen’s World War One poetry, has the tenor’s opening verse, “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?”, ever before burned with the bitter anger that Ian Bostridge invests in it? So much here is simply shattering. And how Bostridge trembles with indignation at “Was it for this the clay grew tall?”.
Simon Keenlyside is Bostridge’s equal, and their shared numbers are soldierly in a way none of their recorded predecessors quite achieved. The brutal truthfulness with which both soloists inhabit the music has a masculinity that evokes the taste and smell of the trenches, and by the time we reach the climactic “It seemed that out of battle I escaped” even the ghosts are alive before us.
The prevailing darkness spills over into the boys’ choir’s angelic music. This vital component of the work is sung with clarity, precision and an unaccustomed strength of dramatic colour by the Choir of Eltham College, the trebles’ biting articulation at the opening of the ‘Offertorium’ delving deep into the text’s true meaning. The adult choristers are also secure and homogeneous throughout, albeit a touch dispassionate in the plaintive legato lines of “Recordare Iesu pie”, and in Sabina Cvilak the chorus is joined by one of the most appropriately idiomatic lyric sopranos to have recorded this music since Galina Vishnevskaya in Britten’s own, nearly-50-year-old account.
The LSO’s brass section rips into the score’s martial elements with full-blooded ferocity, while the chamber-ensemble players (section leaders for the most part) accompany the male soloists with amplitude. Noseda drives the orchestra at full stretch while maintaining total control over the work’s structure: he never rushes or blurs the musical architecture.
This is a searing recording, a match for the very best and more powerful than any other version I know in communicating Britten’s anti-war agenda. Fifty years on, here is a War Requiem for our own troubled times.