14 August 2013

CD REVIEW: Benjamin Britten - WAR REQUIEM, SPRING SYMPHONY, & YOUNG PERSON’S GUIDE TO THE ORCHESTRA (N. Kniplová, G. English, J. Cameron, B. Blachut; Supraphon SU 4135-2)

Benjamin Britten: WAR REQUIEM & Other Works (Supraphon SU 4135-2)

BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976): War Requiem, Op. 66; The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34; Spring Symphony, Op. 44—N. Kniplová (soprano, War Requiem), G. English (tenor, War Requiem), J. Cameron (baritone, War Requiem), M. Šubrtová (soprano, Spring Symphony), V. Soukupová (contralto, Spring Symphony), B. Blachut (tenor, Spring Symphony); Kühn Children’s Choir; Prague Philharmonic Choir; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Karel Ančerl [Recorded ‘live’ in the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague (Czech Radio broadcasts), 13 January 1966 (War Requiem), 3 May 1958 (Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), and 17 January 1964 (Spring Symphony); Supraphon SU 4135-2; 2CD, 141:25]

Thus far, the Verdi and Wagner Bicentennials seem to have been deemed more marketable by record labels than the centennial of the birth of Benjamin Britten.  Alongside the dozens of recent and forthcoming releases timed to pay homage to the masters of Busseto and Bayreuth, releases celebrating Britten have been markedly fewer.  It seems remarkable in a time in which there are so many excellent singers whose native language is English—and whose techniques are far more suited to Britten’s works than to those of Verdi or Wagner—that performances of Britten’s operas and other vocal works, widely acknowledged as masterpieces of 20th-Century music, remain infrequent outside of Britain.  There are occasional suggestions that Britten’s vocal music is slightly too ‘British’ to be palatable beyond the shores of the British Isles; or at least to be fully appreciated in locales where English is not the primary language.  This reveals an interesting paradox in the musical world: while English-speaking singers take on rôles in all of the languages in which operas are sung, subjecting themselves to criticism of their diction, non-native speakers of English are less likely to perform music with texts in the tongue of Shakespeare and Melville.  Ironically, though, the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan—works more British than bangers and mash—remain popular currency throughout the world, often sung in English even in productions by ‘foreign’ theatres.  Can it be that Britten’s musical sensibilities are too inherently of their time and place to seize the imaginations of artists and audiences whose experiences have been shaped by other traditions?  This new release from Prague-based Supraphon, long the upholder of the highest standards in Czech music, answers this question with strong performances of three of Britten’s most finely-crafted works: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, the Spring Symphony, and the War Requiem, all recorded in concert and originally broadcast over Czech Radio.

The circumstances of recording concerts for radio broadcast inevitably introduce problems with balance, ambient noise, and the mistakes that occur in performance.  The remastering by Jan Lžičař minimizes sonic deficiencies to a remarkable degree: balances are natural, and voices are placed within the soundscape without undue prominence.  Especially in the War Requiem, volume levels are low, but boosting the dynamics electronically in playing the recording does not introduce distortion or hiss.  The coughs, shuffles of paper, creaking of music desks, and other noises of live performances remain, of course, but never distract from the music: in fact, these are works that gain histrionic power from audible interaction with an audience, as it were.  These recordings are priceless artifacts from the archives of Czech Radio, and Supraphon’s engineers have granted them appropriate respect without robbing the performances of their vitality.

Czech maestro Karel Ančerl (1908 – 1973) is perhaps one of the least-remembered important conductors of the 20th Century.  A man of remarkable resilience who survived both Terezín and Auschwitz, where his wife and young son perished, Maestro Ančerl was central to the reconstruction of Czech musical life and traditions in the years after World War II.  Not long after the performance of Britten’s War Requiem presented on this release, the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Prague Spring prompted Maestro Ančerl to emigrate to Canada, where he served as Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra until his death.  Whilst in Toronto, Maestro Ančerl impressively improved the quality of the Toronto Symphony’s playing and presided over dozens of memorable performances, many of which were broadcast by the CBC.  One of the greatest achievements of Maestro Ančerl’s tenure in Toronto was a 1970 performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis featuring the uncommonly well-chosen quartet of Claire Watson, Maureen Forrester, Stuart Burrows, and Simon Estes.  Much of the grandeur and tenderness evident in Maestro Ančerl’s pacing of Beethoven’s music also courses through his performances of Britten’s music.  Maestro Ančerl’s leadership is followed with absolute dedication by the players of the Czech Philharmonic, of which Maestro Ančerl was Artistic Director from 1950 until his flight from Czechoslovakia.  During those eighteen years, Maestro Ančerl devoted himself to inspiring his Czech Philharmonic colleagues to a level of playing that would render the orchestra one of the finest in Europe: the success of his efforts is apparent in the performances recorded here.

Britten’s 1946 Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is, as its title suggests, a piece intended to showcase the instruments of the orchestra individually and in ensemble.  As such, Britten’s orchestration is large-scaled, including the clever use of percussion typical of the composer.  Conceived as a series of variations on a theme from Henry Purcell’s incidental music for a 1695 revival of Aphra Behn’s play Abdelazer, Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is a rare piece in which the famously intellectual Britten uninhibitedly flexed the muscles of his compositional technique, shaping each variation as a celebration of an individual instrument of the orchestra and combining all instruments in a fugal restatement of Purcell’s melody in the finale.  This performance understandably omits the English narration by Eric Crozier, librettist of Britten’s opera Albert Herring, but every nuance of the score is conveyed by the splendid playing of the Czech Philharmonic.

Premièred at the Holland Festival in 1949 with soloists Jo Vincent, Kathleen Ferrier, and Sir Peter Pears, the Spring Symphony immediately became one of Britten’s most popular works, its depiction of the triumph of light over darkness inherent in the transition from winter to spring evoking themes memorably explored in Mahler’s Symphonies.  Like Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Spring Symphony employs vocal soloists as extensions of the orchestra in settings of verses by an array of poets.  This 1964 Czech Radio performance offers the work in Czech translation, which add to the poetic power of the performance.  Each of the four Parts of the Symphony receives from Maestro Ančerl an individual interpretation, culminating in a broadly-phrased account of the Fourth and final Part.  The choristers, both adults and children, bring off many hair-raising effects, coping with some punishing tessitura.  The soloists are drawn from the ranks of Prague’s National Theatre and were obviously selected with sensitivity to their suitability for the music.  Soprano Milada Šubrtová, an acclaimed Jenůfa and Rusalka, sings delightfully, suffusing her tone with the warm sounds of spring.  Mezzo-soprano Věra Soukupová sings with equal elegance.  Tenor Beno Blachut is perhaps the most renowned Czech singer of the 20th Century.  He is best remembered for his standard-setting performances of the rôle of Jeník in Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride), but his repertory also included many of the most demanding tenor rôles in the Italian and German repertories, ranging from Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte to Verdi’s Otello and Walther in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  Mr. Blachut’s singing of Britten’s tricky vocal lines, often placed high in the voice, is superb.  He was fifty at the time of this performance, and his singing is marked by the liquid ease with which the voice flows through the music.

The War Requiem was composed for the 1962 consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral.  A lifelong pacifist, Britten apparently found his work on the War Requiem spiritually liberating as it allowed him to pay homage to the traditions of the Latin Requiem while also expressing his very personal response to the horrors of war, poignantly conveyed in the poetry of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action a week before the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I.  The War Requiem is one of the true masterworks of 20th-Century choral music and one of its composer’s most powerful creations.  Maestro Ančerl leads a performance of great subtlety and unapologetic sentimentality, the ethereal quality of the hushed singing contrasting meaningfully with the moments of bombastic depictions of the terrors of modern warfare.  Gerald English brings a pointed sound to the tenor solos, his tone leaner even than that of Sir Peter Pears, for whom the tenor part was written.  There is compelling emotional directness in Mr. English’s approach, however, and his delivery of the deeply compassionate lines from Owen’s ‘Futility’ in the closing section of the ‘Dies irae’ is heartbreaking.  Singing music composed for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone John Cameron is not in best voice, a shudder in the tone sometimes threatening to compromise his intonation, but he, too, provides eloquent, thoughtful singing.  His performance of ‘After the blast of lightning’ in the ‘Sanctus,’ taken from Owen’s ‘The End,’ is unforgettably visceral.  The real surprise in this performance of the War Requiem is the singing of Pokorná-born soprano Naděžda Kniplová.  Britten composed the soprano solos for Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, who was denied the opportunity to participate in the Coventry première by politics and was replaced by Heather Harper but who sang the part in the legendary DECCA studio recording of the War Requiem.  A noted interpreter of the dramatic heroines of Czech opera and the most demanding of Wagner’s soprano rôles, Ms. Kniplová maintained a wide repertory, but her performance in the War Requiem is nonetheless atypical of her work.  Her Brünnhilde, greatly admired and brought to the Salzburg Easter Festival by Herbert von Karajan, was recorded in studio under Hans Swarowsky’s baton [after a long absence from the catalgoue, the Swarowsky Ring is being reissued on the Profil Medien label] and in concert by RAI with Wolfgang Sawallisch on the podium.  The amplitude of the voice that gave the engineers of these recordings such trouble is more comfortably reproduced by Supraphon, for which label she recorded a number of her finest Czech rôles.  A few of the highest notes are raucous, but the security with which Ms. Kniplová faces the difficulties of the music is phenomenal.  Especially in the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Libera me,’ the benefits of a larger, dramatic voice in the music are thrillingly apparent.  This is a fascinating addition to Ms. Kniplová’s discography, and her singing makes an excellent performance of the War Requiem unmissable.

In the thirty-seven years since the death of Benjamin Britten, his works have remained in the repertories of musical institutions in English-speaking countries but have struggled to expand their reach into other corners of the world.  Though the performances recorded by Czech Radio and now released by Supraphon took place fifty years ago, they display the undimmed appeal of Britten’s music and the universality of the philosophical themes that his scores explore.  As a view of Britten’s work from a perspective outside of the British tradition, this release is an important contribution to celebration of the Britten Centennial: offering a newly-rediscovered, mercurial performance of the War Requiem that treats the score merely as significant music rather than as specifically British music, this release deserves a space in every music lover’s collection.