War Requiem, Op.66
Susan Gritton (soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor) & Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Wroclow Philharmonic Choir
Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme
Chetham’s Chamber Choir
North East Youth Chorale
Taplow Youth Choir
Ulster Youth Chamber Choir
Trebles of the Choir of New College, Oxford
Recorded 5-9 January 2013 in Watford Colosseum, 26 February 2013 in Birmingham Town Hall and 15 March 2013 in the Church of St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford
Reviewed by: Mark Valencia
Reviewed: November 2013
CD No: SIGNUM CLASSICS
SIGCD340 (2 CDs)
Duration: 84 minutes
There’s not a crumhorn or sackbut in sight, but it’s still a Gabrieli Consort & Players project and Paul McCreesh doesn’t let us forget it. By tackling a work barely fifty years old this quondam specialist in ancient music might be thought to have left the ensemble’s nominal composer far behind; but those ringing Venetian fanfares find a perverted modern equivalent in the brass flares that crop up all through Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, especially in the ‘Sanctus’, and from McCreesh they sound more like bayonet stabs than military flourishes. Yet this new recording, its compact discs encased all in white (in contrast to Decca’s iconic black LP box for the composer’s own version), is brisk and light wherever possible. Even though the war photos in the exquisitely-produced accompanying book take the reader to some very dark places, there is nothing ponderous or sententious about this probing conductor’s reading.
It helps that McCreesh has engaged three superbly matched British soloists, all with extensive operatic credentials, who collectively ensure that the work’s drama is constantly to the fore. Susan Gritton sings the soprano sections of the Missa pro defunctis with warmth rather than steel, which means that the ‘Lacrymosa’ is more comforting than startling; but she communicates the notes as Britten wrote them with more audible precision than anyone else on disc.
As for Britten’s extraordinarily apposite Wilfred Owen settings, Christopher Maltman sings the baritone solos with heartfelt vividness. ‘Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death’, his first duet with the tenor, John Mark Ainsley, has all the masculine swagger of young soldiers who have yet to taste combat’s bitter gall (“We laughed” is voiced freely and with a stoic sneer), yet shortly afterwards he delivers ‘Be slowly lifted up’ with the grimmest sense of sombre irony. Ainsley is the finest of all current tenors at locating the plangent centre of Britten’s vocal lines. In ‘Move him into the sun’ he captures the pain like no other singer.
The attack of McCreesh’s notably youthful SATB choirs – many of them only a little older than the estimable trebles from New College Oxford who render the boys’ choir sections so impeccably – makes for a choral freshness that would undoubtedly have pleased Britten himself. McCreesh’s commitment to nurturing young musicians would have also warmed his heart. Not only that, the choristers’ collective sound has a directness that serves the work unusually well, not least in the clarity of the ‘Recordare’.
So magnificent and cohesive is the sound on these discs that it’s hard to believe this recording was made in three different locations over a ten-week period (although the lion’s share of it was set down in early sessions at Watford Colosseum). The sound is astonishing. My only grouse is a post-production one: the entire work is divided into only six tracks across the two CDs – one per section – which makes it very hard to single out particular settings, particularly in the ‘Dies irae’ (27 minutes) and the ‘Libera me’ (23). Compare Signum’s meagre allowance with the 21 bands that Antonio Pappano’s contemporaneous recording from Warner Classics offers – and on a single disc too.