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Britten: War Requiem / Masur, New York Philharmonic

Release Date: 10/30/2012 
Label:  Apex   Catalog #: 2564659416   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Carol VanessJerry HadleyThomas Hampson
Conductor:  Kurt Masur
Orchestra/Ensemble:  American BoychoirWestminster Symphonic ChoirNew York Philharmonic
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRITTEN War Requiem Kurt Masur, cond; Carol Vaness (sop); Jerry Hadley (ten); Thomas Hampson (bar); Westminster Ch; American Boychoir; New York PO TELDEC 256465941 (2 CDs: 83:16)

This is a reissue, sans text, of the recording that originally came out on Teldec 17115 in 1998, which was apparently the second of three recordings by Masur. The first, recorded with soloists Edith Wiens, Nigel Robson, and Håken Hågegard with the Israel Read more Philharmonic in April 1996, wasn’t released until November 2011 on Helicon 9645, while the third was a live 2005 performance with Christine Brewer, Anthony Dean Griffey, Gerald Finley, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, issued on the LPO’s own label. J.F. Weber reviewed this Teldec version when it first came out in Fanfare 22:1, the LPO performance in 30:2, and the Israel Philharmonic version in 35:4. He apparently liked this one, finding it almost a carbon-copy of Britten’s original recording but just a tad less intense, but cared little for the other two.

In his review of the Helicon version, Weber intimated that both it and this version were live performances, but this reissue doesn’t indicate that. All it says is “Recording location: Avery Fisher Hall, New York, February 1997.” Considering that Teldec is charging nearly full price ($25) for this two-CD set that clocks in at less than 85 minutes, I as a consumer would be rather offended by such a chintzy presentation. As to the performance, it has a wonderfully atmospheric sound, with orchestra and chorus sounding appropriately muffled in the beginning (as per Britten’s wishes), and the music is shaped with care by Masur. The Westminster Choir is absolutely superb and the soloists are fully up to their challenge of facing down such legends as Galina Vishnevskaya, Heather Harper, Peter Pears, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Vaness, usually considered one of the greatest sopranos of her generation, starts off a bit unsteady of voice, but as the performance continues she sounds considerably firmer of tone, and she has the right intensity from the very beginning. Hampson opts not to emulate his model too much, although his sensitivity in word-painting has always been rather akin to Fischer-Dieskau anyway.

Yet the real gem here is the singing of the late Jerry Hadley. Because he spent much of his career on stage as an opera singer, Hadley was often judged as such, sometimes to his detriment, but I always felt that he was badly under-appreciated, indeed usually wrongly appreciated. As his Nimbus recordings of Britten’s three song-cycles will amply demonstrate, Hadley was in fact a real artist of extraordinary sensitivity and intelligence who basically tired to make it as an opera singer. Anyone who has seen his onstage performance in Weill’s Mahagonny or heard his exquisitely well-thought-out and sensitively characterized performance of the title role in Gounod’s Faust (on the Teldec CD) will understand what I’m talking about. And fortunately, Hadley was in superb voice for this recording, thus he was able to give us the full measure of his part with no dilution of the superb intensity that Pears brought to the music back in the 1960s.

Despite starting out with appropriate opaqueness, I did feel that parts of CD 1—later on—were a bit recessed in sound, but CD 2 is perfect. As for Masur, he is a conductor I normally don’t like because he tends to give everything a fairly bland and conventional reading, but in this particular music and this particular recording he gets everything right. Yes, it’s true, if you have the original Britten recording you may not need this performance, but as an addendum to that version—or, if you don’t have it, as an alternative all-digital recording—I recommend this one as well.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

War Requiem, Op. 66 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Carol Vaness (Soprano), Jerry Hadley (Tenor), Thomas Hampson (Baritone)
Conductor:  Kurt Masur
Orchestra/Ensemble:  American Boychoir,  Westminster Symphonic Choir,  New York Philharmonic
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1961; England 

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