War Requiem, Op.66
Christine Brewer (soprano)
Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor)
Gerald Finley (baritone)
Tiffin Boys’ Choir
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Neville Creed [Chamber Orchestra]
Recorded on 8 May 2005 at the Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: July 2006
CD No: LPO 0010 (2 CDs)
Duration: 84 minutes
Following its premiere at the re-built Coventry Cathedral on 30 May 1962 (does the BBC broadcast of what was, by all accounts, an extraordinary occasion, still exist?) Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” ‘caught on’ in a quite remarkable way for a contemporary composition.
In January the following year, the composer conducted what must be reckoned to be the definite recorded performance – now re-issued on Decca’s recently launched ‘Originals’ label. On hand, besides the LSO and Chorus, The Bach Choir, Highgate School Choir and the Melos Ensemble, were the solo voices Britten had in mind when composing their music – Galina Vishnevskaya (who was forbidden by Soviet authorities from participating in the Coventry performance), Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It is a hard task to match – let alone surpass – Britten’s own version, and it is no surprise that it went unchallenged until EMI released a recording under Simon Rattle in 1983. Since then there have been others; some from the studio (such as Hickox in 1991) and others, like this, taken from ‘live’ performances.
It really is quite difficult to believe that this LPO issue is taken from a single concert, since there is no discernible audience noise, neither are there any major flaws in execution, particularly in terms of ensemble and balance. Moreover, the Royal Festival Hall acoustic – as recorded – does not have the constricted quality one might expect. A critic commented on the RFH’s “inappropriately clinical acoustic” when writing about an early performance of “War Requiem” in that venue, conducted by the composer. Britten himself said that he had designed the work “for a big reverberant acoustic, and that is where it sounds best”. In any event, one need have no reservations about the recorded sound. There is a good overall balance, with the boys suitably distant and ethereal.
“War Requiem” is a work with which Kurt Masur closely identifies. He has, in fact, recorded it before – with the New York Philharmonic – also ‘live’, on Teldec. That is a distinguished reading and bespeaks close study of the score. However, this London account has rather more ‘edge’ to it. Fine though the Teldec recording and performance is, it sometimes sounds too ‘comfortable’ for Britten’s troubled conception. Tempos, overall, are finely judged. In only a couple of instances would I have preferred something other; the boys’ intervention in the first movement is a little too stately for the ‘quick crotchets’ given in the score. Similarly, when the tenor recalls this music in his first solo, the direction ‘always animated’ is not given its due. The baritone’s commentary on the ‘Sanctus’ also lacks a sense of urgency, but in general, Masur (not forgetting Neville Creed directing the Chamber Orchestra) finds just the right amount of propulsion, and the weight of the overall ensemble in the big choral movements. ‘Dies Irae’, ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Libera me’ are immensely impressive, as is the fleet-footed account of the ‘Offertorium’, where the staggered choral entries are spot-on.
Galina Vishnevskaya’s highly distinctive timbre is not to everyone’s taste, but it is what the composer wanted. Her very individual utterance is probably inimitable. Indeed, on Rattle’s recording, Elisabeth Söderström is positively gentle and soft-grained by direct comparison. Christine Brewer is extremely effective, whether in prodigious declamations (her cries of ‘Rex tremendae majestatis’ are indeed majestic and tremendous) or in the lamenting of the ‘Lacrimosa’ where she is most moving without excessive emoting. She soars effortlessly over the massed forces towards the conclusion of the work, without apparent strain. Gerald Finley is a splendid choice for the baritone part; he has the necessary flexibility and range as well as the requisite strength for ‘Be slowly lifted up thou long black arm’, with its terrifying top ‘G’ at its close, which Finely delivers with heroic tone. I was, however, distracted by the pause that precedes this section – no rest is indicated; the timpani of the Chamber Orchestra should, literally, interrupt what has gone before. Whether this is due to a problem of the tracking, or some other hiatus, it is impossible to tell.
I have some reservations concerning Anthony Dean Griffey. The tenor’s part demands a wide range of expression, but Griffey is often much too loud. He is also rather free with some of the rhythmic writing and, on occasions, prefers an almost ‘sprechstimme’ approach to Britten’s note values. Furthermore, his vowels are curiously formed, and when, in Griffey’s rendition, the ‘a’ in a word like ‘fatuous’ acquires an ‘r’ after it, it is unfortunate to say the least.
The orchestral playing – both from the main orchestra and its chamber colleagues – is unimpeachable and there is most certainly a sense of ‘occasion’ and ‘involvement’ about the performance that is quite gripping. The fiery fanfares of the ‘Dies Irae’, for instance, convey all the sense of dread the composer was surely aiming for.
At its modest price, this release is worth acquiring, though for a performance which has a peculiar and particular intensity (not to mention authority) all its own, one needs to turn to Britten on Decca.