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CD Review

Benjamin Britten

War Requiem

Christine Goerke, soprano
Richard Clement, tenor
Richard Stilwell, baritone
Maryland Boy Choir
Shenandoah Conservatory Choir
Washington Chorus and Orchestra/Robert Shafer
TWC 3898 DDD 2CDs: 45:56, 36:15
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This fine new recording of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem was recorded live on April 14, 1995 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The occasion marked the 50th anniversary of World War Two, and was held under the auspices of the United States Department of Defense. In the program, the Washington Chorus expressed its deepest appreciation to the many war veterans in attendance for their dedicated service to the United States. Secretary of Defense William J. Perry made the opening remarks (not included on these discs), expressing the hope that we would "find in our hearts the wisdom and the will to rid the earth of the scourge of war." May it be so. It must have been quite an occasion.

This work has been recorded several times since the composer himself did so almost forty years ago. It is that recording – still available, and in refurbished sound – that new ones must be compared to. Britten intentionally selected English (Peter Pears), German (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) and Russian (Galina Vishnevskaya) soloists to sing the Latin text and the settings of Wilfred Owen's poems. Even in the 1960s, however, Pears had a voice that was more characterful than traditionally beautiful, and Fischer-Dieskau's German accent and vocal tics were distracting at times. For me, it is hard to forget Pears and Fischer-Dieskau and to keep the "Everymen" that they are supposed to personify in the front of the my mind. Britten's recording, then, has great historical value, but it is not perfect.

Listeners might be very satisfied with this live recording. The audience is quiet, but you can feel their rapt attention to the music and to what it represents. The soloists are first-class. Goerke, like Vishnevskaya, sings the Latin texts with the touch of distance required to contrast them with Owen's poems, which are sung – except at the Requiem's very end – only by the male soloists. Clement and Stilwell are masculine presences, well differentiated and always in character, and without vocal shortcomings. They bring out the meaning in the English texts without distorting Britten's music. The all-important choirs do well too. There are about 200 singers in the Washington Chorus (formerly the Oratorio Society of Washington) and another 40 in the Shenandoah Conservatory Choir, and their ensemble and understanding of Britten's style are laudable. Moments of rough intonation are to expected on a live recording, and they are of no great concern here. Praise also goes to the Maryland Boy Choir, for angelic sounds and for tone that is full without being fruity.

Robert Shafer has directed the Washington Chorus for almost 30 years. His name will be unfamiliar to most; it was to me. A Nadia Boulanger pupil with impressive credentials, Shafer shows his training and experience with a performance that is an exemplar of self-effacing professionalism. He doesn't do anything flashy, he simply does what Britten asks him to do, and that's enough.

National Public Radio's production team engineered this recording, and post-production was done nearby in Virginia. The sound is very good, and no one need fear that this set's inexpensive price means any compromise in sound quality, either.

Copyright © 2001, Raymond Tuttle