A recording of the first performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, previously unpublished. The mono sound is remarkably good for the most part if with some initial imbalances (a bit of a sideways view rather than a front-to-back one), which are to some extent corrected as the performance takes wing – this was a live broadcast on the BBC’s Third Programme (now Radio 3). Clearly this is a special occasion; not just the premiere of a major work, one with universal outreach, but something tremendous to consecrate the re-built Coventry Cathedral that had been destroyed in World War Two. The previous “Great” War was Britten’s concern, though: War Requiem melds poetry written during conflict by a soldier killed in action, Wilfred Owen, with the Latin text of the Requiem Mass.
In concert performances of War Requiem, Britten seems always to have conducted the chamber ensemble and male soloists, leaving the soprano, chorus and orchestra to another maestro. In this first performance it was Meredith Davies (1922-2005), as it would be at the Proms in 1963 and 1964. Before the 1963 Prom took place, Britten had been the singular conductor for Decca’s recording, the LSO replacing the CBSO. That 2-LP version was for years the only way of listening to this music at home; and it was my introduction in the late-1970s; quite frankly, it was overwhelming. After a considerable void other recordings appeared regularly, including from (strictly alphabetical) Brabbins, Gardiner, Hickox, Kegel, Masur (twice), Noseda, Rattle and Shaw; and there is an archive version on BBC Legends with Britten and Giulini doing the honours.
But back to the beginning and to Coventry on the evening of 30 May 1962. In this first performance emotions are urgent, and one must remember that the full forces are conducted by Davies and not the composer as would be the case shortly after for Decca (although Davies no doubt had had in-depth discussions with Britten). The boys’ voices are from on high, calling from afar, and they sound really impressive. And if Britten seems to have had doubts about the preparations and subsequent performance, then one must understand his nerves at such a prestigious, broadcast-live premiere of a monumental setting of seemingly disparate texts (downloadable from Testament, by the way).
What this listener hears is a generally secure and certainly a vibrant debut, Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the Melos Ensemble and the composer already assured enough to not change much when the Decca sessions arrived; and we have an invaluable rehearsal disc made then that has accompanied later transfers to CD of that black-box recording. But what this Testament release does, apart from give us a fascinating document, is to preserve the contributions of the estimable Heather Harper, replacing original soprano Galina Vishnevskaya who was grounded by the Soviets, and Meredith Davies.
Writing as someone who has heard much (arguably too much) of War Requiem this year – ideally its impact demands a long gap before the next encounter – but in the line of duty, and also being inspired, there is much to admire in this account aside from it being the first. It isn’t perfect but it is more than a souvenir and surely self-recommending to anyone who is a devotee of the work and/or present in the hallowed surrounds of the Cathedral on the night, or who heard the broadcast. (One imagines it was quite something either way.) And of course to the performers themselves; amongst the principals only Heather Harper (born 1930) is still alive and one imagines (hopes) that all the boys are. The recorded sound is somewhat variable, and rather dull and confused in the ‘Libera me’ finale, but re-mastering engineer Paul Baily has done a great job, refusing to compromise timbres by removing too much hiss; the ears filter it out anyway. A recorded history of War Requiem is unthinkable without access to the premiere ... and here it is.