Notes and Editorial Reviews
Also available on Blu-ray
2012 brings the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Britten‘s War Requiem, one of the most powerful pacifist statements in music. The first performance took place in 1962 in the newly consecrated Coventry Cathedral, built alongside the ruins of the old cathedral, left as a sombre reminder of the wartime bombings. On May 30, 2012, 50 years to the day, Britten‘s masterpiece returned to the cathedral, performed as at the premiere by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and vocal soloists from three once warring nations.
The anniversary performance is conducted by the CBSO‘s Music Director, Andris Nelsons, featuring the
Canadian soprano Erin Wall, English tenor Mark Padmore singing the role written for Peter Pears, and German baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann. Choral forces are provided by the CBSO Chorus and Youth Chorus. Benjamin Britten was commissioned to compose a work for the inauguration in 1962 of Coventry’s new cathedral, adjoining the old cathedral that had been bombed and nearly completely destroyed by the German Luftwaffe at the beginning of World War II in November 1940. The commission gave Britten complete freedom to choose the type of music to compose. He conceived of setting the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead interwoven with nine poems by the English poet Wilfred Owen, who had been killed in World War I. It has become one of the defining masterpieces of the twentieth century: a devastating meditation on the pity of war that is every bit as relevant today.
Erin Wall, soprano
Mark Padmore, tenor
Hanno Müller-Brachmann, baritone
City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, conductor
Recorded live at Coventry Cathedral 50th Anniversary Concert, 30 May 2012
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo / Dolby Digital 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish
Running time: 97 mins
No. of DVDs: 1 (DVD 9)
R E V I E W:
Andris Nelsons is a young Latvian conductor unfamiliar to me, though his entries in the
Archive run from Haydn to Shostakovich. The son of two musicians (or three if you count his stepfather), he grew up with music as a part of his life. Beginning as a singer and a trumpeter, he studied conducting with Neeme Järvi and took charge of the Latvian National Opera in 2003, then conducted
at the Met in 2009 and a new production of
at the 2010 opening of Bayreuth (issued on DVD from a performance the following season). He has conducted this orchestra since 2008. (I am writing this on his 34th birthday.) The concert presented here was performed on the 50th anniversary of the world premiere, which occurred in the same venue, the Coventry cathedral built to replace the old cathedral destroyed in the bombing of November 1940. The orchestra that played the premiere is heard again.
The performance is notably slow, a good six or seven minutes longer than most versions but a pace spread evenly over the length of the performance. (Herbert Kegel’s remake of 1989 is a minute longer, but the slower tempos are all in the first three movements.) The youth choir is made up entirely of teenage girls, the only version I can recall that does not use a boys’ choir, but they produce a tone notably similar to the sound we are familiar with in this work. They are placed at the opposite end of the cathedral next to the organ console, the rest of the performers filling the sanctuary area. The tenor and baritone are at the conductor’s right with their accompanying chamber players, while the soprano soloist stands in the midst of the chorus, which is placed behind the orchestra. The seven cameramen capture the performance from vantage points ranging from a long view from the rear to close-ups of conductor, soloists, and orchestral players as appropriate. Nelsons is pleasant to watch, with no annoying mannerisms but clearly enraptured by the music. He elicits the softest pianissimos imaginable but enjoys whipping up the Tuba mirum thunderously.
The leaflet that comes with the disc has a worthy essay on the music and a list of 21 tracks, but not a word about any of the performers. Erin Wall is a Canadian singer who has appeared with the Lyric Opera of Chicago (she sang Donna Anna in Chicago and at the Met). The
marked her European debut in 2002. Hanno Müller-Brachmann has a career mainly in concerts and oratorios, as well as opera and Lieder recitals (I see him in only two operas in the
Archive). Mark Padmore is the most familiar name here, prominent in the
Archive for quantities of Bach, Britten, Handel, Purcell, Rameau, and Schumann. All three soloists match the best of their counterparts, Wall capturing the intensity of her part without going over the top like Galina Vishnevskaya (who has just passed away at the age of 86), the men eloquently revealing the irony of Wilfred Owen’s poems as juxtaposed with the Latin texts. The large chorus follows the conductor’s desires with precision. The technical execution (camerawork, sound) is on the highest level.
Additional entries since the work’s discography appeared (
32:2) include Ernest Ansermet, 1967 (34:3), Kurt Masur/Israel PO, 1996 (35: 4), Jaap van Zweden, 2010 (36:3), Gianandrea Noseda, 2011 (36:1), and the DVD under Mstislav Rostropovich with the NDR Symphony Orchestra, which I have not seen but must be dated before 2007. I know nothing of Rostropovich’s DVD, only saw a snatch of Gardiner’s VHS issue (no DVD to my knowledge), and reviewed Leinsdorf’s archival (single-camera) DVD, but if you want a video
, this view of Coventry Cathedral would seem to be an ideal backdrop for the music. The camera manages to reveal, through the clear glass wall behind the performers, the ruins of the old cathedral. This is a visible testimony to the pity of war that Owen wrote about, although it doesn’t match the infinitely more devastating loss that Owen expressed in his wry twist on the story of Abraham and Isaac: “But the old man would not so, but slew his son, and half the seed of Europe, one by one.” This must be the best way to see the work performed, although it will not replace the CDs of Britten, Noseda, Gardiner, and Masur (New York) on my shelves.
FANFARE: J. F. Weber Read less
Works on This Recording
War Requiem, Op. 66 by Benjamin Britten
Erin Wall (Soprano),
Mark Padmore (Tenor),
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Baritone)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra,
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1961; England
Be the first to review this title