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Britten: War Requiem - Noseda

Britten: War Requiem - Noseda

LSO Live  LSO0719 (2 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Britten: War Requiem Op. 66

Sabine Cvilak (soprano)
Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
Choir of Eltham College
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Gianandrea Noseda (conductor)


Premiered in 1962, the War Requiem is one of the twentieth century's defining works. Britten was commissioned to write it for the re-dedication of Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed during the Second World War. Interspersing the Latin mass of the dead with texts by war poet Wilfred Owen he created a work that both mourned the dead and pleaded the futility of war.

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Recorded live October 2011 at the Barbican, London
Reviews (2)
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Review by John Miller - May 9, 2012

As I write, it is only a few days before the 50th Anniversary of the first performance of Britten's War Requiem at the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral arisen from its former war-time ruins. The Requiem was and is his passionate musical attempt to draw attention to the pity of war and the need for Peace. The War Requiem has since been performed around the world, and though in the 50 years past there have been many important advances towards conflict resolutions, there have been, and still are, devastating wars being waged amongst and upon humankind.

While some critics adjure the War Requiem for being manipulative in its espousal of pacifism, it nonetheless retains iconsiderable popularity amongst concert and festival goers, as well as record collectors. Having reviewed five versions of it in the last few weeks, I don't feel in the least jaded; rather my more intimate relationship with this score has brought me not only greater admiration for Britten's power and skill, but inspiration from the deep conviction and immense enthusiasm displayed by all its performers.

The LSO had planned this War Requiem to be conducted by Sir Colin Davis, but ultimately had to bring in Giandrea Noseda. In no way should he be regarded as a second string. He not only successfully marshals his considerable phalanx of musicians but finds all the work's drama, copes with a myriad of Britten's effects ranging from Gamelan to gabbling and gives the proceedings a fine, satisfying sweep. This is not strictly a traditional British performance of the work, but is much informed by his Italianate insights and skill in directing large vocal forces.

Britten lays out a detailed plan for the spatial disposition of his musicians in a large acoustic. The concert hall at the London Barbican poses problems for LSO Live producer James Mallinson; the acoustic is stubbornly dry and it is difficult to arrange for the main choir to be somewhat distanced behind the main orchestra. Room on the platform also has to be found for a separated small Chamber Orchestra (members picked from LSO Principals) which accompanies the two male soloists who sing texts by First World War poet Wilfred Owen. The soprano soloist, Sabina Cvilak, is functionally part of the main chorus, and they sing the Latin texts from the Mass of the Dead. She was placed centrally in the LSO Chorus at the live performances, but on this recording she appears instead at centre stage front, next to Ian Bostridge and Simon Keenlyside.

Because of a lack of depth perspective in this hall, it is very difficult, without visual clues, to determine if some solos accompanying Bostridge and Keenlyside originate from the chamber group or the main orchestra.

The last group defined by Britten is a boy's choir, "distant" from the main performers, and accompanied by a small portative organ. At concerts, the Choir of Eltham College were placed in the Gallery for an etherial sound, and in a surround system they can be heard effectively from the rear speakers.

The LSO Chorus is in fine fettle, although their monotone recitation of "Requiem aeternam" in the first few bars is a hardly audible mutter (Britten's dynamic mark is only pp). Their diction is mostly good elsewhere, and their pacy machine-gun rattling out of the 'Dies irae' is excellent, as is the men's vigorously rhythmic 'Confutatis' on Track 10. The chorus also offer richly-toned, soft singing in the final 'Let us sleep now' and 'In Paradisum'. Praise is also due to the Choir of Eltham College for good diction and clear singing, although in their first few sections their organ is very hard to pick up, but this improves later.

Bostridge and Keenlyside are already well-experienced in their roles as William Owens' soldiers. On the whole, they follow Britten's injunction to sing as beautifully as possible, a difficult task when they also have to alter their tone to express Owens' sardonic, terrified or sneering demeanour demanded by his texts. At least they avoid the melodramatic approach of spitting consonants and exaggerated English vowels. It takes Bostridge some time to settle in, but at "Move him into the sun" he floats a golden tone that might have belonged to Peter Pears (the Requiem's first tenor), at his peak. Baritone Keenlyside is ruggedly expressive and soldierly, and his voice blends well with Bostridge's in their moving duet where a German and English soldier meet. However, his crucial dramatic moment of commanding the battlefield guns to "Be slowly lifted up" seems to be in a forced tone, perhaps due to the thankless hall acoustic. Certainly the drama is of lesser impact than the cold deliberation of Mark Stone's version for van Zweden (Britten: War Requiem - van Zweden), which is absolutely terrifying, surrounded by slammed drums and clashing gong. This raised the hairs on the back of my neck as never before, and brought me to tears.

The vibrant slavic tones of Sabina Cvilak lend authority to her cries of "Liber scriptus", while her interjections of "Lachrymosa" in the final 'Dies Irae' chorus are tender and regretful.

Sonically, although there is great clarity in the LSO Live recording, I was immediately struck by the relative lack of deep bass resonance compared to that achieved in the superbly spacious venue for the Netherlanders under van Zweden. Britten's score has a large complement of instruments adding to the dark sonority of his orchestration; grand piano, harps, tuba, bass drum, gong, double bassoon, but very little of this comes through in the Barbican hall. You have to turn to van Zweden, Hickox or Decca's essential RBCD recording by Britten to get the full impact of the War Requiem's sonorous sound-world. Furthermore, the LSO drum and gong sounds stop almost immediately after striking, and the layered brass fanfares in the Sanctus, for example, also hardly resonate, thus loosing excitement. The emotional impact of these instruments on the Barbican performance is therefore lessened, as direct comparisons clearly demonstrate. Another difficulty with the LSO Live recording is the lack of a coherent-sounding, distinctive Chamber Orchestra already mentioned.

The LSO has an unrivalled pedigree in performances of the War Requiem, and display this very well on this disc. With Noseda's intuitive direction and fine contributions from all the vocalists, this is an excellent bargain version at about two discs for the price of one. It also has the advantage of individual tracks for each item, rather than just keys into Britten's six Parts, and a helpful booklet note by Colin Matthews. However if you are looking for superb sonics matched to a totally captivating performance, I would go for van Zweden, followed by Hickox (Britten: War Requiem - Hickox).

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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Review by Graham Williams - May 30, 2012

Today is the 50th anniversary of the first performance of Britten's War Requiem that took place at the consecration the rebuilt Coventry cathedral on 30th May 1962. When the composer's own interpretation of his most ambitious work was enshrined by Decca the following year, it became a unique document that has never been absent from the catalogue. Since then the work has been championed by many conductors, convinced of the emotional power of this solemn and elegiac masterpiece to move audiences, and umpteen fine recordings have followed.

On the title page of the score, Britten quoted Wilfred Owen with words that sadly are as true in 2012 as they were when Owen penned them almost a century ago.
"My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity …
All a poet can do today is warn.
There are currently seven versions of the work available on SACD and five of these, including this one, have received detailed and balanced reviews from my colleague John Miller (Geohominid).
This recording from LSO Live is taken from widely praised performances given in the Barbican in October 2011. The same artists involved here have also performed the work in New York to great critical acclaim.

Gianandrea Noseda is one of the most exciting conductors around today. His ten years at the helm of the BBC Philharmonic yielded a considerable number of memorable and thrilling concerts in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall, and the fine recordings that he has made for Chandos with that orchestra testify to his charisma on the podium. He has always shown himself adept at controlling large choral and orchestral forces in works by Mahler, Shostakovich and Verdi, but his complete identification with the music of Britten comes as something of a surprise. Noseda has stated that he adopted an operatic approach to the work. This translates as emphasising the contrasts between the huge choral and orchestral outbursts (Dies Irae and Sanctus) and the intimacy of the Wilfred Owen settings. At 83'48” this is a swift moving and convincingly paced account of the War Requiem, with thrillingly incisive choral singing and orchestral playing in the work's most overtly dramatic sections, as noted above.

Though the composer's own performance will always have a special significance, not everyone was enamoured of Britten's chosen soloists, especially the soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya whose wide vibrato and not always perfectly tuned singing at times causes one to wince. At the Coventry première Heather Harper sang the part, but by the time she recorded it with Richard Hickox, thirty years later in 1991, her voice had lost some of its former radiance. On this LSO Live recording the young Slovenian soprano Sabina Cvilak is outstanding. Her voice is both pure, steady and perfectly pitched in the 'Liber scriptus' and 'Lachrymosa', yet it possesses the necessary penetrating power required to ride the largest climaxes.

The other two soloists, Ian Bostridge and Simon Keenlyside, are particularly well matched. The former's voice, like that of Peter Pears, may not suit all tastes, but his total identification with Wilfred Owen's poetry and the way in which he movingly communicates its meaning to his audience is in no doubt. Simon Keenlyside's firm bass-baritone and straightforward delivery of the texts is a perfect foil to Bostridge's very personal and often chillingly bitter interpretation.

The Hickox version also with the LSO was recorded in the bright and ample acoustic of St. Jude's Church, Central Square, London and the resulting reverberant sound is in complete contrast to that experienced here. Both the main orchestra (and chorus) and the chamber orchestra are in front of the listener while the clear-voiced singing of the trebles of Eltham College Choir emerge from the surround speakers to magical effect. It can't be denied that the engineers (Neil Hutchinson and Jonathan Stokes) have done wonders in achieving a sense of scale and space in the difficult Barbican acoustic.

The choice of a single version of this profoundly moving work for one's library will always be a difficult and ultimately personal decision, but having lived with this one for the past month I know that it is a recording to which I will certainly wish to return . At LSO Live's bargain price auditioning it is a no-brainer.

Copyright © 2012 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

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Sonics (Multichannel):

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