Saturday 12 October 2013

Paul McCreesh and his team provide one of the finest of modern performances of Britten’s War Requiem on a new release from Signum Records

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was approached as early as 1958 to write a work for the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral built to replace the old Cathedral destroyed during the Second World War. When he was commissioned, in 1960, to write a large scale choral work for this event, he appears to have been annoyed that the clergy of the Cathedral seemed to want to avoid paying him a fee, writing,’…they must be prepared to pay for it, just as they have had to pay the workmen to build the Cathedral.

Nevertheless, by early 1961 composition had begun on what was to be the War Requiem, with Britten contacting Galina Vishnevskaya and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with a view to them taking two of the three solo parts in the Cathedral premiere. Peter Pears was, of course, to take the tenor role thus bringing together artists from the Soviet Union, Germany and Britain representing the three countries that suffered most during the war.

Britten had, since the death of Ghandi in 1948, wanted to write some kind of Requiem in his memory and it may be that these ideas were resurrected when the idea of the new choral work arose. There was also a personal element to the new work dedicated, as it was, in loving memory of Roger Burney, Sub-Lieutenant, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve; Piers Dunkerley, Captain, Royal Marines; David Gill, Ordinary seaman, Royal Navy and Michael Halliday, Lieutenant, Royal New Zealand Volunteer Reserve.

Clearly expressing Britten’s pacifist beliefs, the War Requiem sets the words of the Latin requiem mass alongside the poetry of Wilfred Owen . Writing from Greece, where he completed the orchestral score, Britten wrote, I was completely absorbed in this piece as really never before.’ Given that the War Requiem is arguably one of Britten’s finest works it is surely no surprised that Britten put so much into this work.

The rehearsals for the Requiem were not without problems. Britten found the acoustic of the new Cathedral to be appalling, the builders were still working on the site and the Cathedral authorities not helpful. It was also quickly realised that it would be impossible for Britten to conduct both the main orchestra and the required chamber orchestra in the space available. In the event it was decided that Meredith Davies would conduct the main orchestra whilst Britten would conduct the chamber orchestra.

To add to Britten’s problems, Galina Vishnevskaya was unable to perform due to problems with the Soviet authorities. Heather Harper took her place, though in the subsequent Decca recording Galina Vishnevskaya was able to take part.

The premiere of the War Requiem took place at Coventry Cathedral, on the evening of 30th May 1962. The start was delayed due to problems getting the audience into the Cathedral.

In addition to Britten’s own Decca recording with his preferred soloists, Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, there have been a good number of other recordings. One of my own favourites is from the late Richard Hickox with the soloists Heather Harper, Philip Langridge and John Shirley-Quirk (Chandos). However, there have been recordings issued with conductors such as Kurt Masur (LPO), Gianandrea Noseda (LSO Live), John Eliot Gardiner (DG), Simon Rattle (EMI), Martyn Brabbins (Naxos), Maris Jansons (BR Klassik), Karel Ancerl (Supraphon) and Seiji Ozawa (Decca), to name but a few.

A new recording of the War Requiem from Signum Records brings a lavishly produced issue featuring Paul McCreesh with his Gabrieli Consort and Players together with soloists Susan Gritton (soprano) , John Mark Ainsley (tenor) and Christopher Maltman (baritone) . They are joined by the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir , the Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme and the Treble’s of the Choir of New College, Oxford . This two CD set comes in a CD sized hardback book with, in addition to notes about the music by Professor Mervyn Cooke and full texts and translations,  memories of the first performance of the Requiem by a diverse range of people. Throughout the book there are numerous black and white photographs of Britten, the ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral, and First World War images.

This new recording is taken from three performances at the Watford Colosseum, Birmingham Town Hall and the Church of St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford between January and March 2013.

Britten’s War Requiem is in six parts, Requiem Aeternum, Dies Irae, Offertorium, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Libera Me.

As the chorus opens the Requiem Aeternum is as though they are rising from the depths before building magnificently only to fall back to the lovely Te Decet Hymnus, with the fine sounds of the boys’ choir. As the Requiem Aeternum tries to reassert itself the choir slowly tries to rise again until tenor, John Mark Ainsley, enters with What passing bells. As with so many of Britten’s works, one always associates this role with Peter Pears, such is the writing so directed to his voice. Here John Mark Ainsley is in fine voice, keeping a balance between providing a vocally anguished edge to his voice and melodiousness. With the Kyrie Eleison we are returned to the hushed world of mourning with the choir beautifully and affectingly controlled.

Trumpets herald the Dies irae in a moment of deep anticipation before the choir enters, slowly building in strength, before the return of the trumpets. Chorus re-enters building up even more before timpani and brass arrive in a tremendous section so fully realised here. The choir are terrific as the pitch builds up. Surely this is one of the great moments in music. This choir is so well disciplined and controlled.

Christopher Maltman gives so much feeling to Wilfred Owen’s verses in Bugles Sang, with a fine instrumental accompaniment and always an underlying tension. It builds to an anguished pitch, absolutely terrific. In the Liber Scriptus soprano Susan Gritton sings the part written for Galina Vishnevskaya, with a suitably firm edge to her voice but never shrill, quite superb, so finely controlled and balanced against the choir. Out there we walked brings baritone and tenor in a fiendishly difficult duet to pull off, yet that is exactly what John Mark Ainsley and Christopher Maltman do to great effect, judging the bitter dialogue so well. As the brass ensemble leads magnificently into the Recordare this is another beautiful and affecting high point, with this choir singing superbly.

The Confutatis has the choir showing remarkable ensemble, building to a terrific climax and leading straight into Be slowly lifted up, where Christopher Maltman is in terrific voice, full, rich, powerful and anguished. The chorus builds even more on the baritone’s power when the Dies Irae returns with increased urgency, until slowly losing energy as the music moves into the Lacrimosa with Susan Gritton giving a superbly emotional performance. Move him into the sun brings the return of John Mark Ainsley, so poetic in this Owen setting, so finely controlled and agile, feeling the words so well. How Britten skilfully dovetails the Lacrimosa with Owen’s poetry is remarkable. The Pie Jesu follows on from the anguished voice of Ainsley in the most affecting way with a beautifully hushed ending from the chorus.

The Offertorium opens with Domine Jesu Christe and the choristers of New College, Oxford sounding wonderful in the large acoustic. Sed Signifier Sanctus Michael brings the main chorus, raising the spirits in a firm, animated section, with terrific support from the orchestra until breaking into So Abram rose, with another fine dialogue between tenor and baritone, hideously and powerfully expressive at first then in a beautifully fine blend of voices, as God stops Abram from killing his son with the words ‘…lay not thy hand upon the lad.’

Again Britten dovetails the So Abram with the Hostius e preces with stunning effect. These performers are spectacularly good and, as the soloists fade against the boys choir there is more fine singing from the choir in the Quam olim Abrahae.

With the Sanctus, bells herald the soprano in a difficult passage superbly managed by Susan Gritton and the percussionist Adrien Perruchon. The choir grow slowly louder, until the Sanctus fully arrives in another of the great moments in this work, magnificently done by these forces and recorded to overwhelming effect in the large acoustic. Susan Gritton is particularly fine in the Benedictus and the return of the Sanctus is phenomenally stirring – another Britten triumph. After the blast brings baritone Christopher Maltman, very fine and extracting great atmosphere and feeling from the texts.

One ever hangs has John Mark Ainsley juxtaposing Wilfred Owen’s verses with the choral Agnus Dei. Who could not be touched by this?

The Libera Me rises out of dark orchestral sounds as the chorus intone the Libera Me, as though wearily moving forward. Slowly the music quickens and rises to a pitch with the words Libera Me, Domine  (Deliver me, O Lord). An anguished Susan Gritton enters before the chorus returns in a big climax for soprano and choir that collapses into It seemed that out of the battle I escaped, another superb moment so well realised here.  This dialogue for tenor and baritone is one of this works most poignant moments. Against a hushed and spare orchestral accompaniment Ainsley sings ‘It seemed like out of battle I escaped’ especially well sung at the words ‘And no guns thumped…’.

Britten’s use of individual woodwind instruments adds an extra emotional pull and when he enters, Maltman brings superb feeling to the text and, as he reaches the words ‘I am the enemy you killed my friend’, it is a heart stopping moment. Let us sleep now comes as a release from the tension, as the tenor and baritone are joined by the boys’ choir singing the In Paradisum. The chorus enters and the orchestra weaves around the ensemble, soon the soprano joins, soaring above the choir and orchestra as before a beautifully hushed Requiescant in pace.

This new recording is a considerable achievement for all those involved. Paul McCreesh manages these large forces brilliantly to bring us a terrific performance.

Britten’s own Decca performance will always be special and I would not want to be without Richard Hickox’s fine version, but this new release, with excellent sound and first rate presentation, ranks as one of the finest of modern performances.

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