Recordings > Opera and Oratorio

BRITTEN: War Requiem

spacer Cvilak; Bostridge, Keenlyside; London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Noseda. Text. LSO Live LSO 0719


The vast landscape of Britten's War Requiem poses great challenges to recording engineers. There are three groups of performers, with a large standard contingent of chorus and orchestra threatening to overwhelm a pair of vocal soloists (accompanied by a twelve-member chamber orchestra) and a boys' choir (accompanied by an organ). Britten counted on a separation of forces for both musical and theatrical reasons. The piece, Britten said, was "calculated for a big, reverberant acoustic." In many performance venues, it is simply not possible to provide the requisite sonic space. Moreover, for a recording, it isn't possible to represent a cathedral acoustic simply by recording in a cathedral. London's Barbican, where this recording was made, apparently couldn't provide the right setup. Certainly some of the expression of the piece comes across anyway, particularly in the performances of soloists Ian Bostridge and Simon Keenlyside. But another aspect of the expression is missing. Britten carefully maintained the separation of performing forces until the penultimate movement, in which the main orchestra and chorus (which performs a mass setting in Latin) quietly steal into the world of the chamber orchestra (which accompanies settings of English poetry by Wilfred Owen). Later there is a layering of textures in the final movement, in which all three groups overlap for the combination of the English words "Let us sleep now" with the Latin "in paridisum." This, alas, is not sonically apparent on the recording.

Gianandrea Noseda's interpretation is notable for the way he plays his cards very close to the vest. This is a purposeful, efficient performance. Effects such as the gradual accelerando in the Libera Me are hyper-controlled. After an opening Requiem Aeternam that is more urgent than slow and solemn, the long second movement never lets up emotionally. The Benedictus has a searching quality, rather than Britten's specified molto tranquillo, and the Agnus Dei eschews a weary tread for something more task-oriented. Noseda doesn't luxuriate in the crest of the big wave that forms the climax of the layering in "Let us sleep now"; rather, it is a fleeting, ungraspable moment. Soprano Sabina Cvilak's voice is not vibrant, which makes for a Sanctus without jubilation or brilliance, but it also results in a humble Benedictus. Bostridge and Keenlyside prove to be optimal casting for their solos; the tenor shows some of the surprising body to the tone that he reveals more readily in live performance than on studio recordings, while the baritone is eminently theatrical in the trapped quality of "The End" (his solo in the Sanctus) and suitably bleached of tone for the line "I am the enemy you killed, my friend" in the final poem. The chorus of the London Symphony seconds Noseda's conception to the letter. Their vowels, curiously, are broader than those usually heard from British choirs; British critics would chide them as "American."


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