Notes and Editorial Reviews
was composed and premiered in 1962. The first performance took place in the refurbished Coventry cathedral and, according to a participating chorister, no one knew whether it would all come together in time (the composer possibly included). The work involves large forces, used in a carefully structured way. The words of the Latin Mass for the Dead are set for soprano and mixed chorus, accompanied by large orchestral forces?also the children?s choir with organ accompaniment?while the poetry of Wilfred Owen is interspersed throughout, set for the tenor and baritone soloists accompanied by a
separate chamber orchestra. Owen?s war poetry is seen through realistic and humanist eyes (he died during active service in the First World War) and is intimate, occasionally sardonic, and highly personal. This intimacy is underlined by Britten?s chamber setting, heightening the contrast with the requiem Mass which here represents the ?public? utterance in wartime. Britten?s setting of the Mass begins at a comforting pianissimo, but gradually grows more pompous and hysterical: more ?false,? if you like, as the poetry becomes more ?true? in its depiction of the futility and stupidity of war. Following the final poem, Owen?s heart-rending
, all these forces are reconciled in a musical fantasy, the choir intoning ?requiescat in pace? (?rest in peace?) against the soloists? ?Let us sleep now.? Although a committed pacifist, Britten was pragmatic enough to understand that such a reconciliation was literally a fantasy, and it remains so today.
Owen?s poetry came out of the ?war to end all wars? but in 1962, the Second World War was still uppermost in people?s minds. Britten hoped to get these three soloists together (a German, an Englishman, and a Russian) to symbolize the warring nations reconciled. At the 11th hour, the soviet authorities refused Vishnevskaya permission to travel, so the soprano solo was first sung, beautifully, by Heather Harper (who, much later, recorded it).
When Decca came to record the work shortly afterwards, news of the work?s importance had reached Russia, so Vishnevskaya was allowed to participate. It is easy to hear why she was Britten?s first choice. Her vibrant, Slavic soprano (vibrato and all) soars out over the choir and orchestra, making a statement with every phrase?which is what the public side of this work is about. Even when she sings softly, as in the moving middle section of the Dies Irae movement, it is sentiment writ large. Fischer-Dieskau brings to the baritone part all his textual detail and a great voice in its prime. Pears?s vocal quality, so often described as an acquired taste, is perfect in this context: it somehow combines fragility with strength and has an innate sadness in its tone color. All the other forces under the composer?s assured baton are stunningly captured by John Culshaw?s recording, a watershed in its time and still impressive in its ability to manage the contrasting acoustics. There have been several recordings of the
since this ?original cast album?; many of them contain superlative performances, but none supercedes Britten?s as a whole. So: a famous recording, a work of extraordinary skill in word-setting, filled with passages of beautiful, moving music, and a message of peace for a world consumed by hatred: so much more than the sum of its wonderful parts.
FANFARE: Phillip Scott
Works on This Recording
War Requiem, Op. 66 by Benjamin Britten
Galina Vishnevskaya (Soprano),
Peter Pears (Tenor),
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Baritone),
Simon Preston (Organ)
London Symphony Orchestra,
London Symphony Chorus,
Highgate School Chorus
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1961; England
Date of Recording: 01/1963
Venue: Kingsway Hall, London
Length: 81 Minutes 21 Secs.
Be the first to review this title