* BRITTEN: War Requiem – Sabina Cvilak, sop./ Ian Bostridge, tenor/ Simon Keenlyside, bar./ Choir of Eltham College/ London Sym. Chorus/ London Sym. Orch./Gianandrea Noseda – LSO Live multichannel SACD LSO0719 (2 discs), 83:48 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
1962 saw the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s epic War Requiem, a non-liturgical work that uses the scaffolding of the traditional Latin requiem interspersed with the profoundly realistic war texts of Wilfred Owen, perhaps the most noted poet of WWI who was killed only one week before the end of that war. Britten uses the graphic nature of the poetry to make points about his own pacifism, incorporated into this commission which celebrated the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral which was destroyed early in WWII (1940). The beauties of the 14th-century old St. Michael’s Cathedral (the real name of the edifice) shine like the stars next to the rebuilt modern monstrosity that already displays its datedness, though at the time it was of important civic and symbolic value to reconstruct what had been one of the largest parish churches in England.
Britten’s music is also more suited to the newer building than the old gothic one, and its warlike premonitions must have rung eerily true to the 1962 audience, many of whom were in the city when the cathedral was destroyed. Its frighteningly realistic imagery coupled with physical sounds of drumbeats (bombs?), tri-tone based melodic curvature and march-like rhythms make for some of the most uncomfortable passages in all of contemporary music.
But the piece also features some of the most beautiful passages as well, angelic strains offering comfort and to forgiveness to everyone present in a mix-and-match upheaval of emotions that few composers aside from Britten could manage. The three soloists are associated almost leitmotiv-like with differing forces, the soprano with large orchestra, the men with chamber orchestra, and the boys’ choir with a positive organ, all three finally joining together in the last movement.
Check my review of the Helmuth Rilling SACD recording for a summary of my favorites in this piece. I can say that this one easily challenges the Britten recording for sheer sonic impact, and the interpretation is very good as well. Britten still has the advantage for headphone listening as this one seems a little unfocused in that medium, but full surround speakers make for an entirely different experience. All of the forces, including the star-studded soloists are excellent, and this 50th-anniversary release of the premiere performance is memorable indeed.
A long requested re-issue from Joe Henderson, sees the light of day…