* BRITTEN: War Requiem, Op. 66 – Evelina Dobracheva, sop./ Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor / Mark Stone, bar./ Netherlands Radio Choir / Netherlands Children’s Choir/ Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orch./ Jaap van Zweden – Challenge Classics, multichannel SACD CC72388 (2 discs), 47:00, 35:44 [Distr. by Allegro] *****:
In a field crowded with admirable performances, it’s hard to give this recording a first-place recommendation, but it’s certainly one of the finest SACD versions of the work.
Benjamin Britten, who won a full exemption from service in World War II as a conscientious objector, would perhaps in an earlier day have been an ironic choice to write dedicatory music for the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral. But in May of 1962, bygones were bygones in a number of ways. The war was long over, and the rededication of the cathedral, battered to a mere shell by Nazi dive bombers in 1940, was to be an act of reconciliation, one that Britten saw fit to reflect in the performance of his score. He wanted to engage as the three soloists representatives of the three countries that had suffered most during the war. So he lined up a Russian soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya; an English tenor, Britten’s life companion Peter Pears; and a German baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Unfortunately, the Soviet authorities balked at the idea of a Soviet singer lending her talents to such a project (presumably, it violated ground rules of the Cold War), so English soprano Heather Harper was substituted at just about the last moment. Luckily, Vishnevskaya was able to contribute to Britten’s classic recording of his score.
This work by a lifelong pacifist was to make a pacifist statement, but of what sort? To be sure, there are moments in the work where Britten’s anger with the brutal folly of war is very forthright, the most obvious example being the duet for tenor and baritone that follows the Rex tremendae section of the Dies irae. The soloists sing World War I poet Wilfred Owen’s “The Next War” (“Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death”), the chamber orchestra jogging along with sounds that I can only describe as insolent. Owens’s poem portrays the soldiers’ singing and whistling along with Death “while he shaved us with his scythe. . . . / We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.” The juxtaposition of this poem with the Latin text that has gone just before it sets up one of the numerous ironies in the work. The Latin is a plea for the “God of tremendous majesty” to save the supplicant as He saves all those worthy of salvation. In the poem, of course, Death is not an aloof and tremendous majesty who saves according to His will but rather a chum, an old friend that the soldiers have come to regard coolly and blandly in their daily doings.
As elsewhere in the libretto, the irony is admirably subtle; strangely, Britten’s music is not. It’s vulgar, mocking, jarring—for me some of the least effective in the entire work. Others may disagree, but it seems to me that Britten got a little too close to his subject here. Literary irony is supposed to distance a writer from his or her material, but I think Britten let his anger with war and the makers of war overcome his better artistic judgment. Less glaring but also outré is Britten’s strident setting of Owens’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (“What passing bells for these who die as cattle?”) in the Introitus. For me, these are minor defacements that detract, but not perilously so, from a work for the most part as carefully planned and executed as any.
Beyond Britten’s choice of the three soloists representing three combatant nations, the whole work is conceived as a vast stage set with three clear planes of action: foreground, middle ground, and background. In the foreground are the tenor and baritone soloists plus chamber orchestra (flute doubling piccolo, oboe doubling English horn, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and percussion). The middle ground is taken by the soprano soloist, chorus, and the mammoth orchestra (triple woodwind, six horns, five percussionists). In the background is the boys’ chorus accompanied by the organ. The roles of the performers are discreet: the male soloists take on the roles of the soldiers in Owens’s poetry; the soprano and chorus sing the mass text; the boys, also singing the mass text, inject a note of the otherworldly into the proceedings, a hope of the glory to come, which the other participants bring down to earth with images of the projected horror of the Day of Wrath and the already experienced horror that was trench warfare.
When Britten’s ironic juxtapositioning works, the effects are devastating, as in the Offertory, usually one of the more uplifting sections of the requiem mass. Here, the supplicants ask that the Archangel Michael bring eternal light to the newly deceased, as God promised to Abraham and to his seed. In Britten’s score, this section sung by the chorus is followed immediately by the tenor and baritone singing Owens’s “The Parable of the Young Man and the Old” (“So Abraham rose, and clave the wood, and went).” It’s the poet’s retelling of the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, but in Owens’s version, Abraham rejects the ram that would be a surrogate for Isaac and instead “slew his son, – / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
With such a profoundly troubling subject, haunted as it is by the deep ironies inherent in this clash of texts, it’s a great tribute to Britten’s talent that he created a work which is, as Owen himself put it, about the “pity of war.” The work is sad, yes, but often starkly beautiful and manages, in the end, to uplift, to offer the kind of catharsis that great tragedy is supposed to offer its audiences.
Violinist-turned-conductor Jaap van Zweden’s version of the War Requiem enters the lists not only against quite a number of competitors but in a field crowded with worthy alternatives. First of all, of course, there’s Britten’s own recording on Decca. While I find both his soprano (Vishnevskaya) and tenor (Pears) soloists are acquired tastes that I haven’t fully acquired, there’s no denying the inherent power, not to mention special insight, of Britten’s reading.
Passing over other worthies to concentrate on SACD releases, Helmut Rilling (Hänssler), Richard Hickox (Chandos), and Kurt Masur (LPO) all have their adherents, and at least one critic avers that Masur has the finest solo team since Britten. The most recent SACD release from Gianandrea Noseda and the LSO (LSO Live) has also garnered much praise. And for those with DVD or Blu-ray players plus surround-sound playback capabilities, a new release from Arthaus Musik featuring Andris Nelsons and the City of Birmingham Symphony and Chorus recreates the original 1962 performance at Coventry Cathedral. Reportedly, it takes the most obvious liberty provided by surround sound: placing the boys’ choir and portable organ at the back of the cathedral and thus behind the listener.
While van Zweden’s new version may not go directly to the head of this illustrious class, there’s much to admire here. Among his soloists, Russian soprano Evelina Dobracheva doesn’t sacrifice beauty of tone for drama and yet commands attention throughout, whether in the anguished Liber scriptus or the far tenderer pages of the Libera me. I appreciate English baritone Mark Stone’s performance as well; there’s a vulnerability lurking under the soldiering-through he presents in the two duets of the Dies irae. This vulnerability becomes heartbreaking in his two solo numbers in the Sanctus and Libera me. However, American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey’s vocalizations may be too rhetorical for some tastes (mine included).
Van Zweden has excellent choral and orchestral forces at his command and leads them through Britten’s complex, demanding structure with sureness and authority. The precision of the performance is even more remarkable given that this is a live recording; just a bit of audience noise here and there the only giveaway. And the engineering does just as well by Britten’s complex sonic arrangement. There’s a true sense of layering here that’s subtly effective.
I compared this recording with Simon Rattle’s version on EMI, in which the engineers took pains to create this layering effect, much discussed in the press at the time. The EMI recording, an early digital one, sounds crude, almost primitive in comparison, with the tenor, baritone and chamber orchestra in an airless space right under your nose, the boy’s choir away off on some distant planet. The Challenge Classics engineers seem to have captured the disposition of the forces in the Utrecht concert hall with real fidelity and in so doing have created a big, deep, handsome sound space.
With so many fine rival recordings to choose from, I can’t really give this release a first recommendation. However, I can confidently state that it merits your consideration even if you have other versions of this work in your collection. If you don’t, be assured that this is one of the finest among SACD recordings. If your system has SACD capabilities, you’ll certainly want to hear it.