STÅLE KLEIBERG: Requiem for the Victims of Nazi Persecution – Noémi Kiss, soprano / Catherine King, mezzo-soprano / Christian Hilz, baritone / The Choirs of Washington National Cathedral / Washington National Cathedral Chamber Orchestra / Michael McCarthy – Washington National Cathedral multichannel SACD WNC 0401, 50:20 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
In his thoughtful notes to the present recording, Malcolm Bruno invokes the name of Benjamin Britten, whose War Requiem was commissioned for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1960. Destroyed in a deadly night raid by Nazi dive bombers in November 1940, the cathedral was rebuilt within the shell of its medieval forebear. True to long-held sentiments, Britten not only mourned the war dead but issued a powerful indictment of warfare itself by setting, within the context of the Latin requiem mass, the unflinching anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen, who died on the Western Front a week before the Armistice.
The parallels with Norwegian composer Ståle Kleiberg’s Requiem are clear. The third in a trilogy of choral works mourning the victims of war’s atrocities, the Requiem presents six standard sections of the Latin requiem mass: Requiem aeternam, Dies irae, Kyrie, Agnus Dei, Libera me, and In paradisum. As with Britten’s setting, Kleiberg interpolates poetry, in this case poetry written especially for inclusion in his work by British author Edwin Morgan. Kleiberg met Morgan through Scottish composer James MacMillan and came to greatly appreciate Morgan’s work. As it turns out, Edwin Morgan must have felt a special connection to the project, having served in World War II. Also, like Britten, Morgan is a homosexual, so his pull-no-punches commemoration of homosexuals who died in the Holocaust carries deeply personal significance. The three sections that Morgan contributed—”The Yellow Triangle: Jews,” “The Brown Triangle: Gypsies,” and “The Pink Triangle: Homosexuals”—are sung by the mezzo, soprano, and baritone soloists respectively.
Through-composed instead of strophic settings like the remainder of the Requiem, these sections are some of the most emotionally complex and satisfying in the piece. Of the three singers, I find Noémi Kiss’s performance in “The Brown Triangle” especially affecting. Hers is a powerful ringing voice, certainly, but I wonder if as a Hungarian she felt a special kinship with a people whose music has been so memorably celebrated by Hungarian composers while at the same time they’ve been collectively vilified over the centuries. Catherine King’s performance is equally powerful. It’s accompanied by a horn solo (played by Jason Ayoub) that, in its weird chromaticism and addiction to the instrument’s throaty lower register, mimics the sound of the shofar.
I find Christian Hilz’s performance the least successful. The words aren’t clear, and his English pronunciation is not of the best. Plus, his lugubrious delivery gilds the lily just a bit; he should let this tough poetry speak for itself more.
While I’m considering the negative aspects of the project, I should mention that the Dies irae section strikes me as kind of odd. Like the same section in Verdi’s Requiem, it surprises by instantly plunging us into the Day of Wrath, with big bass drum thwacks (captured with real punch by the engineers), a stentorian chorus, and percolating brass entries. But the music, cast in the major key, seems strangely sunny and upbeat, the melodies weak parodies of popular song. Or so it seems to me. But then I have a similar reaction to Britten’s Dies irae. Other parts of both these works put the fear of God in me, but I’m unmoved by the Dies irae sections, which seem surprisingly limp.
As I say, not so other parts of Kleiberg’s Requiem, especially the three sections based on Morgan’s poetry; the stark Libera me (section nine); and the eighth section, another interpolation, in this case Psalm 13, which sums up the laments voiced in Morgan’s poems:
How long shall mine enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and hear me, O Lord my God:
Lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death:
Lest mine enemy say, I have prevailed against him;
And those that trouble me rejoice when I am moved.
The performances under Washington National Cathedral Music Director Michael McCarthy are very well drilled—and deeply felt. Kudos especially to the orchestra, drawn largely from students at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Their skills speak well for that institution.
The recording was made in 2004 at the National Cathedral and at the Chapel of New College, Oxford. It’s a real tribute to the engineers to note that the recording seems to have sheer continuity; I can’t tell one venue from the other, and the liner notes ain’t saying which is which. I had fears that the grand acoustic of the Cathedral would swallow up the performers, but the recording is powerfully-detailed and benefits by the added depth and spaciousness that the churchly venues impart. I recommend this SACD as both a satisfying sonic and musical experience. [Those last comments don’t apply as much to the standard CD layer…Ed.]