Britten: War Requiem - Masur

Britten: War Requiem - Masur


Stereo/Multichannel Single Layer

Classical - Vocal

Britten: War Requiem

Christine Brewer (soprano)
Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor)
Gerald Finley (baritone)
London Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir
Kurt Masur (conductor)

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PCM recording
Reviews (1)

Review by John Miller - March 26, 2012

Kurt Masur directed Britten's War Requiem at a Royal Festival Hall concert with the LPO in May 2005. The Press gave the live performance many plaudits, and a number of record reviewers have since concurred. Masur's performance, at 83'22 (very close to Britten's estimate in his full score of 85') has conveniently been fitted onto a single SACD. This is not a hybrid disc; there is no RBCD layer. It was recorded in 44.1/24bit and its multichannel track is in 4.1 format. Unusually, the track listing goes well beyond Britten's six sections, giving entry to individual solos or choruses, thus expanding the entry points to 20.

Britten's dove-tailing of the Latin text of the Requiem Mass with poems by Wilfred Owen, one of the best-known and most graphic of First World War soldier-poets, is inspired. It enabled him to have the tenor and baritone soloists use the poetry written in the trenches to comment ironically on the beliefs and hopes expressed in the Mass for the Dead, which is sung by a chorus with full orchestra and added contributions by a soprano soloist. The tenor and baritone are accompanied by a 12-piece chamber orchestra. Britten's third group of singers is a chorus of boys, accompanied by a small organ and placed at some distance from the main forces. For Britten, these represented a kind of angelic purity and innocence. They intone the Latin hymns associated with the Missa de Profundis.

All of the performers are clearly aware of the emotive power of Britten's heartfelt indictment of War, and under Masur's leadership capture the undercurrents of menace, horror and pain of conflicts, past and present. Compassion and eventual consolation are reached in the final movement, where all the musical forces are beautifully balanced. The highly experienced tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and baritone Gerald Finlay are fully immersed in their roles as protagonists for Wilfred Owen's texts, almost rivalling Pears and Fischer-Dieskau in sensitive phrasing and deftly-pointed word painting, all without a trace of mawkishness. Finlay's commanding voice is particularly beautiful as well as authoritative. Soprano Christine Brewer, although not quite having the sizzling passion of Visnevskaya for Britten is in fine voice. Her lamenting, tender Lachrimosa is memorable, as is her imperious Sanctus.

The LPO Chorus sings superbly, with mostly clear diction and well-marked articulation which makes the most of Britten's sardonic, bitter notation. The orchestra too is on top form, Masur leading them through every telling detail of Britten's finely-wrought orchestration.

Britten had the vast acoustic of the new Coventry Cathedral in mind for the Requiem, and in the marvellously informative rehearsal sequences captured (unknown to the composer) by producer of the Decca recording), reveals how he wanted the spatial arrangement of his forces to be arranged. The ambience of the Royal Festival Hall, unfortunately, is still quite dry even after acoustic refurbishment, so it must have been difficult for the engineers to follow Britten's requirement to have the boys choir and their organ "very distant". In the multichannel track, they have set the organ and soprano boys far right on the front sound stage, while the alto sound emerges from back left. Thus the antiphonal exchanges occur diagonally across one's room. This is a fairly subtle use of the surround channels and far more acceptable than the lop-sided and out of perspective efforts of the Hänssler engineers on Rilling's discs (Britten: War Requiem - Rilling). The front sound stage has the chorus behind the orchestra, the 12 member chamber group on the left in front of the main orchestra and the soloists well forward, befitting their crucial parts.

At large climaxes, especially the brazen majesty of the second Sanctus, the orchestra seems to expand along the sides of the listening room, with the bass drum sounding at the back left, giving a thrilling and immersive experience. I suspect that this spillover from front to rear is caused by the notorious false-imaging along the RFH walls rather than deliberate mixing. The stereo stage, although lacking some of the fine detail added by a central channel, is very immediate, although the dry ambience doesn't allow much front-to-back perspective.

Although a live performance, there is little or no audience noise, and the total commitment of the musicians carries Britten's passionate message of Peace in a deeply moving way. This is a performance with an emotional temperature close to Britten's recording, and deserves its place on the short-list. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and


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