Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem/Antonio Pappano [Anna Netrebko, Ian Bostridge & Thomas Hampson; Warner Classics]

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War Requiem, Op.66

Anna Netrebko (soprano), Ian Bostridge (tenor) & Thomas Hampson (baritone)

Coro et Voci Bianche dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia

Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Sir Antonio Pappano

Recorded 25 & 26 and 28 & 29 June 2013 in Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: November 2013
6 15448 2
Duration: 80 minutes



A great sense of anticipation informs the opening of this the latest recorded account of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. With the recent availability of the very first performance, in Coventry Cathedral 51 years ago, we now have quite a rounded view of this remarkable score in terms of made-available documents.

Antonio Pappano leads a striking account of this great work, quietly thunderous at the outset, a tolling bell puncturing the dark mood, the Voci Bianche (unbroken voices) choir then offers radiance from afar (the choristers’ placement is excellent in terms of a distant perspective, suggesting a starlit world) yet with an alternation of tone that suggests girls are also in this particular mix. (Britten’s score requests the specific timbres of boys only.)

Communicative and operatic perhaps sums up this notable performance from Rome, and in doing so Pappano finds similarities with Verdi’s Messa da Requiem (the associated publicity quotes him in this). The chamber ensemble, accompanying the two male soloists, seem less separated than in other recordings, and as no credit is made for a second maestro, then clearly Pappano conducts both this group as well as the soprano, chorus and orchestra. Ian Bostridge’s first contribution (“What passing bells…”) finds him in eloquent form in the first of the Wilfred Owen World War One poems that interchange with the Requiem text. Thomas Hampson is similarly open in his contributions; indeed his word-painting and plaintive delivery is of particular honour. Although Anna Netrebko provides some soaring heaven-reaching moments, she can also be just a little inconsistent in tone across the range.

The particular stamp of the Santa Cecilia choral singing, darkly luminous, could be said to steal a march on British counterparts; the Romans bring something really distinctive to everything they do, a living and breathing response (if that is not a contradiction with regards to the source of the words they sing) that has something of the theatre about it. Certainly the ‘Dies irae’ is thrilling – but, one small caveat here – the roaring timpani/bass drum rolls that dissolve into sustained sounds on the piano find that the latter is not be heard, even on headphones (track 3: 1’42”-1’55”), a tiny point but one that is prominent on the composer’s Decca recording and not easily overlooked thereafter.

Otherwise, this is a very absorbing account, as musical as it is dramatic as it is poignant, intensity sustained over 80 minutes irrespective of whether it is a sacred or a secular setting and with the feeling that everything belongs and is indivisible – poetry from a writer who died in battle in World War One, just one week before the cessation of hostilities, interlinked with words that commemorate the dead. It is perhaps invidious to nominate highlights, but Hampson’s intoning of “After the blast of lightning” (track 16) is spine-chilling moment, during which the chamber musicians find a suitably sombre and charged response. As for the final section, ‘Libera me’ (in which Owen’s Strange Meeting is introduced), slithery double basses (left-positioned; Pappano illuminates throughout with the use of antiphonal violins) really set-up a nervy subterranean atmosphere that reaches an explosive climax – with much percussive emphases – before Owen’s famous lines “The pity of war” and “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” (both Hampson) make due impact. After this, both male singers begin the pacifying “Let us sleep now”, and what follows is sublime.

This impressive and enlightening rendition of War Requiem, vividly recorded, copiously indexed and with a booklet including all texts as well as translations of the Latin, is the latest in a very distinguished series of choral religious recordings from Rome and Pappano (links below). With sincere apologies to Wilfred Owen: All a reviewer can do today is recommend.

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