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Britten: War Requiem / Netrebko, Bostridge, Hampson, Pappano

Release Date: 11/19/2013 
Label:  Warner Classics   Catalog #: 15448   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Thomas HampsonIan BostridgeAnna Netrebko
Conductor:  Antonio Pappano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Santa Cecilia Academy Rome ChorusSanta Cecilia Academy Rome Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRITTEN War Requiem Antonio Pappano, cond; Anna Netrebko (sop); Ian Bostridge (ten); Thomas Hampson (bar); O & Ch of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome WARNER 6 15448 2 (80:05)

There has been a profusion of War Requiem s lately, presumably in honor of the composer’s centennial. I’ve reviewed one in each of the last two issues (conducted by Karel An?erl and Paul McCreesh, respectively) and there is yet another one that has appeared Read more recently, conducted by Mariss Jansons. (On top of that, Testament has just released a recording of the work’s first performance.) Do we need all of these? No, but each new recording sheds a different light on Britten’s music, and, in its own small way, adds to our understanding of what the War Requiem is all about.

Pappano’s new recording, recorded in concert last June, has a lot going for it. This is the most operatic version I have heard, and no one will accuse the performers of pulling their punches. At the work’s opening, the choral pleas for eternal rest are sung with considerable insistence; the Latin text is given as much meaning as Wilfred Owen’s poetry is later on. Throughout, the chorus is excellent—well-drilled with no loss of spontaneity, and even the “voci bianche” are not as fruity-toned as one might expect them to be, given the Italian setting. Similarly, the orchestra plays powerfully, but also with refinement, and the chamber ensemble—not identified in the booklet, but presumably drawn from the ranks of the orchestra proper—is eloquent, particularly in its terse interjections in “Strange Meeting.” Pappano conducts the score with urgency. The opening really moves, as does the narrative of “Isaac and Abram,” but nothing sounds rushed. It is good, and not just for financial reasons, not to be forced to switch CDs halfway through this work.

I’m less happy with the soloists. Starting from the top down, Anna Netrebko sounds as if she is trying to channel Galina Vishnevskaya, the soprano whom Britten had hoped would premiere the work. (Because the Soviet Union would not allow her to participate, Vishnevskaya was replaced by Heather Harper less than two weeks before the premiere. Vishnevskaya did participate in the composer’s studio recording, however, but reportedly was furious about being placed with the choir, and not with Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.) Netrebko seems to have darkened her voice for this recording—or perhaps it is simply getting darker over time—but alas, the top of her voice sounds more frayed than in the past, and Vishnevskaya is more secure overall. Ian Bostridge has a prettier voice than Peter Pears did, at least in 1963, when Pears recorded this work. Like Pears, however, Bostridge sometimes sounds affected, or even fussy—not like a soldier, but like a refined oratorio singer dressed up as a soldier. He does everything he can with this music to score interpretive points, but he’s not viscerally convincing. Thomas Hampson is, I think, an improvement over Fischer-Dieskau and his vocal mannerisms. (He’s also better here than on his earlier Teldec reading with Kurt Masur.) Hampson was in particularly good voice for these concerts, although his voice seems a little smaller now than it did two decades ago. He also sounds more natural in his solos, and in his duets with Bostridge. However, he sometimes over-emotes: So does Bostridge, for that matter. In “Out there” they sound positively vehement, which is a contradiction, interesting as it might be, of Owen’s text. Overall, Pappano’s operatic conducting is mirrored by the work of his soloists, but while Pappano is convincing throughout, Netrebko, Bostridge, and Hampson are only inconsistently so.

Still, in spite of this, I like Pappano’s War Requiem better than the aforementioned recordings by An?erl and McCreesh, although not better than Britten’s own. My favorite version, though, remains the one on EMI with Simon Rattle—a surprise, because I generally don’t like Rattle’s conducting; here, he is angry, impassioned, and very much beneath the skin of the music. His soloists are Elisabeth Söderström, Robert Tear, and Thomas Allen—a vocally splendid and dramatically credible crew. Pappano’s version might make a reasonable third choice, after Rattle and Britten himself, and a bronze medal really is nothing to be ashamed of.

FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle
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Works on This Recording

War Requiem, Op. 66 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Thomas Hampson (Baritone), Ian Bostridge (Tenor), Anna Netrebko (Soprano)
Conductor:  Antonio Pappano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Santa Cecilia Academy Rome Chorus,  Santa Cecilia Academy Rome Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1961; England 

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