BRITTEN: War Requiem – Orchestra, Chorus and Boys’ Choir of the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecelia (Roma)/ Antonio Pappano/ Soloists: Anna Netrebko, sop./ Ian Bostridge, tenor/ Thomas Hampson, bar. – Warner Classics 6 15448 2, 80:05 ***:

Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) spent the early years of WWII in North America. His reasons for leaving England in 1939 included increasing hostility there to two strong elements of his character – his pacifism and his sexual orientation.  He returned in 1942, determined to supplant Ralph Vaughan Williams as his country’s preeminent composer. The vehicle that made his intention clear was his opera Peter Grimes. No English composer for centuries, including Vaughan Williams, had written a successful opera.

Other operas followed – Albert Herring, The Rape of Lucretia, Turn of the Screw – but none as successful as his first. Britten’s high reputation across many musical genres brought him a request in 1958 to write a major choral work for a festival marking the consecration of the rebuilt cathedral at Coventry. This was to become The War Requiem.  I call it a request rather than a commission because one of the first disagreements between Britten and the organizing committee was over their mistaken belief that he’d write the piece pro bono. Once that was settled, in the composer’s favor, composition began in 1961.

The skeletal structure of the work is that of the Latin Mass for the Dead, with these parts sung mainly by the soprano, the full chorus and a boys’ chorus. Britten inserts brilliant poetry by a young soldier, Wilfred Owen, who died in the last week of WWI. Owen too was conflicted with the pacifism and homosexuality that haunted the composer. The poems are sung by the tenor and baritone.

Besides remuneration, other challenges arose during preparations for the festival, scheduled for May 30, 1962. Following an early rehearsal, Britten described the acoustics of the new Coventry Cathedral as “lunatic”. Britten wanted his cast of singers to represent a reconciliation among the protagonist countries recently at war, so he selected Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Germany), his own partner Peter Pears (U.K.) and Galina Vishnevskaya (USSR) as his leads.  Early on he asked the soprano if she could speak English. When she said no, Britten responded “Then I’ll write your part in Latin”. But the Russian government did not give Vishnevskaya permission to travel to England for the festival, so a replacement was found on short notice.

A recording of The War Requiem, with the original soloists Britten had intended, was released in 1963 and sold 250,000 copies on LP within a year.  (That’s not a typo – but a record, then, and now, for a recording of contemporary classical music.) It is undoubtedly Britten’s masterpiece. [We reviewed it in a recent hi-res multichannel reissue here, and an earlier LSO version was a Multichannel Disc of the Month…Ed.]

The layout and acoustics of Coventry influenced the musical forces Britten used. The producer David Groves has assembled an all-star cast, emulating the diversity of the original. Soprano Anna Netrebko (Russia), tenor Ian Bostridge (U.K.) and Thomas Hampson  (U.S.) are led by Antonio Pappano with Rome’s Orchestra and Choirs of the Academy of Santa Cecilia.  Pappano is music director here as well as at the British Royal Opera. His grounding in opera radiates from this recording.  The overall mood is sombre, but the vocal line is clear from the choirs and soloists.

The recording was made in Rome’s Sala Santa Cecilia of the Auditorium Parco della Musica in late June 2013. Not surprisingly, a  team of Italian and British people did the recording, editing and mixing. The sonic results are excellent for standard CD, as are the notes. Altogether, a most moving experience.

—Paul Kennedy