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CD Review

Benjamin Britten

War Requiem

Lynda Russel, soprano
Thomas Randle, tenor
Michael Volle, baritone
George McPhee, organist
Scottish Festival Chorus
The Choristers of St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh/Nigel Boddice
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
Naxos 8.553558-9 2CDs
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My hobby is learning. Music is simply one venue of this hobby. One of the aspects of this hobby is writing these reviews, because each disc I am sent is an opportunity to learn something. Sometimes, as in this one, it is an opportunity to learn a piece of music that I was not familiar with.

For what it is worth, Naxos offers some information about the actual recording. Apparently there was no recording venue large enough to accommodate the forces assembled. They used what had served as an engine shed in Glasgow's Harland & Wolff shipyard. It has since been converted to a media center and offers a cathedral-like presence and acoustic. The bottom line, it worked.

If you are not familiar with the piece, Britten intersperses a Latin Requiem with words from some of the war poetry of Wilfred Owen. The poetry is staggeringly impressive. If I have a problem with the piece, it is that the tenor, in particular, utilizes a lot of vibrato when singing Owen's words. To my ears this sounds pretentious and is an example of the kind of thing that the popular press uses to make fun of classical music…and it is open to being ridiculed. Still, this is a general problem and it exists in the other recording I have of the piece, on Chandos with Hickox conducting.

I have had the Chandos recording in my collection since it was issued. I gave it a brief listen on one occasion and put it aside when the tenor started warbling. I pulled it out for some comparison while listening to this Naxos set. Let's be honest, however, comparison is difficult for several reasons. One is economic, the Chandos set is at least twice the price of the Naxos set. Another is that the Chandos recording is coupled with two additional pieces by Britten, the Sinfonia da Requiem and Ballad of Heroes. So, to an extent we are comparing apples and oranges. Still, I will comment on this recording at times.

As I was saying, this piece on the surface looks like a classic Latin Requiem. The traditional Latin phrases, however, are interspersed with some of the poetry of Wilfred Owen. A pox on both recording companies for not saying anything about the poet. Owen was an English poet who lived from 1893-1918. His best known poetry is that he wrote about World War I and it is some of that which Britten uses. Owen served with distinction as an officer in the war and was killed in action a week before the armistice. Now that I got out of my 8 year old daughter's Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia. I can't locate the English Lit text books I used when majoring in English in undergraduate school. Anyway, his poetry is just staggering. One example is in the Dies Irae:

Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this new snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds, -
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?

This is one example of the nine that are used in Britten's Requiem. Somehow the pieces are so apt that it is scary. This is a Requiem that opens chant-like, and that chant atmosphere hovers over much of the music. It is also angry music, dissonant for reason and not effect. I do not know why, but it is Mozart's unfinished masterpiece that most often comes to mind when listening to the Britten.

Now, what of this performance and recording? Well, for starters the sound is very distant. You will need to crank it up to get the best effect. I have noticed this tendency in a lot of recent recordings. This is not just the case with Naxos, however, but I have also heard it on RCA and EMI recordings. If you do turn up the volume sufficiently the effect has a warmth sometimes missing in other recordings.

For some reason, the baritone's solos are much more distant than the tenor's. The problem with this is that it robs the baritone's impact. This is decidedly a problem in the Agnus Dei. In the Libera me the balance between the two is better. I am not sure why this problem affects the recording, but you should be aware of it.

I have decided to use the Libra me as the focus for comparative analysis between the Naxos recording and the one on Chandos. I said earlier that for some reason Mozart's Requiem comes to mind as I listen to Britten's work. This sensation came to me repeatedly as I listened. This is not because the two are the same, rather it is because Britten seems to capture a classical sense of form in the War Requiem. The Libra me does not end on any note of hope. The final lines quoted from Owen are:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend. I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed. I parried; but my hands were loath and cold."

"Let us sleep now… "

This last line is repeated as a tenor and baritone solo, then duet, then with the chorus. It fades to the tolling of the bells that open the Requiem. There is so much going on in this movement, however, that my attempts to write down everything were futile. It opens with a chant that segues into a humming, swirling, distant chaos like an air raid. It goes through varied moods before coming to the cold, deadly close. There is a peace at the end which is not peaceful.

After writing the above, I listened carefully to the Chandos recording of the War Requiem. As I said earlier, this is not really comparable for several reasons. I now need to add to that. The Chandos recording is at a much higher level and closer. To my ears, this tires after awhile. While the soloists have a marginally more expressive interpretation than those on Naxos, the over-all perspective on Naxos is warmer and places the orchestra as more a part of the picture. The Chandos recording reveals some impressive solo contributions from the orchestra, but there is little air around the music, it seems dry.

Another thing in favor of the Naxos release is the insert notes. They are written by Keith Anderson and offer a background of the composer as well as a synopsis of each of the six movements of the Requiem. The Chandos notes talk some about the piece and the composer but do not discuss the music itself except in general terms. I appreciate it when the record comes with the kind of discussion offered in this Naxos set. As I said, it does bother me that neither of them offer anything about Owen and that is not excusable.

Given the above, if you add in the price of Naxos, there's no contest. It is this Naxos recording which is at the top of a short list of available recordings. I strongly recommend this recording to all of you.

Copyright © 1997, Robert Stumpf II