Recordings > Editor's Choice

BRITTEN: War Requiem

spacer Gritton; Ainsley, Maltman; Gabrieli Consort, Wroclaw 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, Gabrieli Players, McCreesh. Signum/Winged Lion 340 (2)

Centennial Tribute

Paul McCreesh leads a new performance of Britten's War Requiem with international credentials.

WarReqCD

Among this year's big-three milestone-birthday boys, Benjamin Britten may lag a century behind Wagner and Verdi, but the recorded attention paid him seems at least on a par. This War Requiem is a case in point: it's one of (by my count) three newly recorded performances of this massive masterwork released this past fall, along with a hugely important, truly historic fourth — Testament's documentation of the piece's 1962 premiere at Coventry Cathedral. Verdi's own Requiem can't match that tally in any given calendar year, nor can ParsifalWagner's unofficial contribution to the genre. Indeed, over its lifetime Britten's version — a hybrid of the traditional liturgical text and the poetry of Wilfred Owen — has become easily the most-performed "big" Requiem since Verdi's.  

And it fully deserves that status. I'm not an unabashed Britten-lover; the works of his youth have a sap and vigor that seemed to dissipate as he aged, replaced by dry intellect and sheer compositional savvy. But the War Requiem has a from-the-gut candor that I don't find in, say, his Midsummer Night's Dream of the year before, or even his "confessional" Death in Venice of a decade later. A lifetime of committed pacifism, its roots in his youth at Gresham's, a boys' school from which the Great War had reaped a heavy harvest, finds its most resonant expression here. Britten was an expatriate in still-neutral America when the Blitz began and Luftwaffe bombs fell on Coventry and destroyed its grand cathedral; upon his return to England in 1942, he sat out the war as a conscientious objector; at war's end, a visit to the liberated death camp Bergen-Belsen left him deeply shaken. There's a sense of impotent horror in this Requiem and, in Owen's evocations of an earlier war, Britten's vicarious immersion in the bloodstained combat that he himself had, probably at least half-guiltily, avoided. 

Paul McCreesh's new performance (recorded largely at Watford Colosseum in January 2013, but two other venues and dates are ambiguously cited) has properly international credentials. Britten famously wrote the solo parts for a Russian, an English and a German singer, and while the trio here is completely British, the 170-voice chorus mixes seven British aggregations with Poland's Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir, with which McCreesh has enjoyed a strong professional association. There's the requisite sense of occasion here, too, with the spacious Watford acoustic  asserting itself grandly in the big liturgical pages of the score but never obscuring the subtle details of the chamber-scored Owen poetry . Tenor John Mark Ainsley  and baritone Christopher Maltman  are compellingly eloquent Owen surrogates, well matched in both the naïve bravado of "Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death"  and the eerie, horrified hush of the altered-ending tale of Abram and Isaac . Soprano Susan Gritton , in music written for Galina Vishnevskaya but first performed by Heather Harper, aptly mixes British starch (in the best sense) with a touch of Slavic steel.  There's more vocal glamour to be found in other trios on other recordings, and a more imposing sense of occasion on at least two (Britten's pioneering 1962 studio version, on Decca, and his extraordinary Albert Hall collaboration with Giulini of seven years later), but the strong commitment exuded by this new one is undeniable. spacer

PATRICK DILLON

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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10