As far as I know, this is the first SACD recording of Benjamin Britten’s formidable and indomitable War Requiem. Some have said that this work is best heard in concert, where the emotional elements of Wilfred Owen’s texts are given full and visceral reign. There is some truth to this assertion, and perhaps that is what lies behind the only 16 available recordings of this work—for all of its greatness and profundity, it is not a piece that people rave about, or express interest in hearing all of the time.
The subject itself is a painful one, and brings to mind events that most people don’t want to hear about. Consequently it surfaces during great national turmoil and great national celebrations, and only rarely on recordings. Consequently any new and effective offering that is well executed and presented has a good chance of making headway in the “which one should I choose?” sweepstakes. Of all the modern choral works that I can think of, this one would surely benefit to extremes with the application of superlative SA sound. With Rilling at the helm—an acknowledged master of the idiom—how exactly does this one fare?
On first hearing, pretty well. I should mention that these performers are all very young, a youth orchestra and choir as such, and perform with evident enthusiasm and commitment. The sonic spread seems rather intelligent and well placed, with the exception that certain brass choirs and others might have benefited from more spotlighting in the separate speaker areas. There is a certain smoothness that Rilling brings to the work that makes it a little more palatable for non-wartime audiences, one that emphasizes the lyrical aspects of the score and makes the work more meditative in nature than perhaps it was intended. Highest marks for performance, and perhaps a B- for a missed chance at more creative recording processes in the SA format.
But when I began to compare my own personal favorites—Shaw/Atlanta, Giulini/New Philharmonia, and Britten’s own premiere recording—things changed rapidly. Shaw’s recording is a model of clarity and fused drama, with a choir that outperforms everyone. Giulini ups the ante with a reading of powerfully emotive resurgence done live, and his BBC recording sounds great. And Britten—still, the Britten—actually has more presence and vividly lustrous and impacting sound than this current SA release. The Britten is a recording for the ages, and has lost none of its luster, with a conspicuous advantage of capturing that special and celebratory night at Coventry Cathedral. But on top of everything in it still rocks you out of your seat, and its aural balance is near perfect.
I will keep this current issue for I like the way that these kids play, and theirs is perhaps the newest recorded take on this work from an emerging generation. But soundwise it really does not supplant any of the listed competitors, and one would think that would have been a stated goal of this release.
— Steven Ritter