BRITTEN: War Requiem – Galina Visnevskaya, sop./Peter Pears, tenor/ Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, bar./ Highgate School Choir/ The Bach Choir/ Melos Ensemble/ Simon Preston, organ/ London Sym. Orch. & Chorus/ Benjamin Britten – Decca (Blu-ray+2 CDs)

by | Nov 7, 2013 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

BENJAMIN BRITTEN: War Requiem, Op. 66 – Galina Visnevskaya, sop./Peter Pears, tenor/ Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, bar./ Highgate School Choir/ The Bach Choir/ Melos Ensemble/ Simon Preston, organ/ London Sym. Orch. & Chorus/ Benjamin Britten – Decca Pure Audio Blu-ray+2 CDs 478 5433 (9/17/13) [Distr. by Universal] *****:

This is the album we are awarding to three AUDIOPHILE AUDITION readers this month.  It is a new remastering to both audio-only Blu-ray and standard stereo CD from the original tapes made in January 1963 in Kingsway Hall, London. (Amazon has it listed as just an audio CD.) The engineer was Kenneth Wilkinson and the producer John Culshaw. This benchmark recording featured three of the top voices at the time and was conducted by the composer. The first CD contains the entire work and the second CD is a surreptitious recording—in mono—which was made during the rehearsals for the recording from the mic on the recording desk. When LPs of the latter were presented to Britten in honor of his 50th birthday, he was “appalled” that such a recording had been made, since he was very private person, but he felt somewhat more accepting of it later on.

A great deal of work went into the remastering effort. Poor splices were repaired with splicing tape and tape splicing block just as had been used in 1963, before the digital processing was carried out to a 96K/24-bit domain. For this Britten centenary edition, the engineers made extensive comparisons with the earliest LP pressings and later remasterings in order to make a definite transfer. Hi-res PRISM DACs and CEDAR noise reduction were used. On the Pure Audio Blu-ray the work is now heard much as it had been in the studio in 1963. Although no attempt was made to mix the original two channels to 5.1 or 7.1, I found the PCM stereo on the Blu-ray to be just as good as the Chandos multichannel SACD I have of the work with the same orchestra and chorus and other soloists, but conducted by Richard Hickox in 1991. There is no hiss, yet every note is clear and extended and the different acoustics of the various groups making up the performance is quite obvious. The album originally sold an unheard-of number for a classical recording at that time.

The War Requiem may be the strongest pacifist choral work every written. It is really a large-scale non-liturgical setting the Requiem Mass which was originally performed for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral which had been destroyed in WWII.

The traditional Latin texts of the mass are interspersed with the settings of the very moving poetry of Wilfred Owen, who served in WWI and was killed only a week before the Armistice. The poet was mostly unknown at the time but is now regarded as one of the greatest war poets. Selecting his nine poems came natural to Britten as a fellow pacifist who was also gay, as was Owen.

Britten revealed that other great requiems influenced him in his composing, especially Verdi’s, but the work is entirely unique. There are basically three musical forces: a soprano soloist accompanied by the full orchestra, the tenor and baritone (representing the English soldier and his German counterpart) with the chamber orchestra, and finally a distant boys choir accompanied by only a small positive organ. The last group produces a strange and ethereal sound. There are a lot of bells and fanfares in the work, and the full pipe organ is only heard in the final Libera Me movement.

John Culsaw reported that Vishnevskaya had a tantrum at the recording session because she felt she should be placed with the male soloists instead of with the choir. Fischer-Dieskau sent a telegram about how pleased he was to come from Germany to do the baritone soloist, though a small part. The note booklet with the discs is also extremely worth reading, and of course has the complete texts of the work. In 1989 Derek Jarman made a feature film adaptation using this actual recording of the War Requiem as the soundtrack. It starred Laurence Olivier and was his last film performance.

This recording is one of the greatest achievements of the classical recording world; Gramophone called it “…among the most magnetic performances of British music ever put on record.”  Now in this new hi-res remastering package it will have a new life with collectors around the world.


CD1 & Pure Audio Blu-ray =
Requiem aeternam
[1] Requiem aeternam 5.54
[2] What passing bells for those who die as cattle? 3.39
Dies Irae
[3] Dies irae 3.38
[4] Bugles sang, saddening the evening air 2.34
[5] Liber scriptus proferetur 2.56
[6] Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to death 1.57
[7] Recordare Jesu pie 4.49
[8] Be slowly lifted up 1.51
[9] Dies irae 1.13
[10] Lacrimosa dies illa 1.54
[11] Move him into the sun 4.50
[12] Domine Jesu Christe 3.32
[13] So Abraham rose, and clave the wood 6.10
[14] Sanctus 6.01
[15] After the last of lightning from the east 3.49
Agnus Dei
[16] One ever hangs where shelled roads part 3.39
Libera me
[17] Libera me, Domine 7.36
[18] It seemed that out of battle I escaped 9.35
[19] Let us sleep now… In Paradisum 5.37

CD2 =
[1] Requiem aeternam 7.18
[2] Dies irae 9.46
[3] Dies irae 2.03
[4] Dies irae 4.37
[5] Offertorium 8.22
[6] Sanctus 6.15
[7] Sanctus 0.17
[8] Agnus Dei 1.05
[9] Libera me 1.11
[10] Libera me 5.20
[11] Libera me 3.16

—John Sunier

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