10 November 2013

CD REVIEW: Benjamin Britten – WAR REQUIEM (E. Magee, M. Padmore, C. Gerhaher; BR-Klassik 900120)

Benjamin Britten - WAR REQUIEM, Op. 66 (BR-Klassik 900120)

BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976): War Requiem, Op. 66—E. Magee (soprano), M. Padmore (tenor), C. Gerhaher (baritone); M. Hanft, organ; Tölzer Knabenchor; Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Mariss Jansons [Recorded ‘live’ in the Philharmonie im Gastieg, Munich, 13 – 15 March 2013; BR-Klassik 900120; 2CD, 87:00; Available from Amazon, BR Shop, ClassicsOnline, and major music retailers]

As the years pass and the ranks of veterans grow ever smaller, the personal stories of World War II are being lost to history.  The global implications, the inhuman atrocities, and the tales of gallantry remain part of the collective conscience, but the intimate experiences of the War—sweethearts saying goodbye, soldiers dying in their comrades’ arms, mothers burying sons and daughters, children never knowing their parents—are fading from memory.  When he was commissioned to compose a large-scale choral work for the 1962 consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, Benjamin Britten was perhaps mindful of the degenerative effects of time and prosperity on recollections of deeply individual hardships.  A lifelong pacifist, Britten incorporated the poetry of Wilfred Owen, the eloquent literary voice of World War I who fell on the Belgian Front a week before the armistice was signed, into his setting of the Latin liturgy, surely inspired to a significant degree to use Owen’s poignant words to remind generations to come—generations for whom armed conflicts would hopefully be nothing more than paragraphs in history books—that wars are not mere sporting by politicians.  Whether Britten was cognizant as he composed the score, which he dedicated to friends who served and in two cases died in the War, that the War Requiem would ultimately be one of his most enduring works is impossible to know, but the reception of the work’s first performance cannot have failed to convince the composer that his music had reached the hearts of a generation still scarred by air raids, rations, and neighborhoods reduced to ruins.  That the War Requiem is one of the greatest works not only of Britten’s career but of the entire canon of 20th-Century choral music is revealed by its continuing appeal to audiences throughout the five decades since its creation.  Perhaps it is now for many audiences a sentimental memorial to the parents and grandparents whose bravery and resilience were only partially understood.  In this year in which Britten would have marked his hundredth birthday, performances and recordings of the War Requiem are also celebrations of one of the most significant composers of the 20th Century.  This performance by Mariss Jansons and the forces of the Bayerischen Rundfunks honors Britten and the spirit in which the War Requiem was conceived, bringing together a trio of superb soloists and musicians of the highest order to sound anew, in Owen’s words, the ‘bugles calling for them from sad shires.’

The propulsive, unsentimental conducting of Mariss Jansons aptly conveys the stark beauty of Britten’s music.  Though it is approachable in a way that many of the masterpieces of 20th-Century choral music are not, the War Requiem is not ‘easy’ music: with complicated rhythms, sparse harmonic language that can make accuracy of intonation difficult for choristers, and angular melodic lines, Britten’s score presents challenges to all artists involved with a performance.  There are also challenges for the listener, whose ear must seek in Britten’s evocations of the din of war the subtler sounds of peace.  His familiarity with the music of Purcell lent Britten a facility for word-setting that eluded many of his contemporaries, and indifferent though he may have been to the traditional liturgical implications of the Requiem text he displayed great insight in his matching of both the Latin texts and especially the Owen verses to music that highlights meaning without obscuring the clarity of the words.  Maestro Jansons, who has recently honored the Verdi Bicentennial with stirring performances of the Messa da Requiem, brings similar mastery to his conducting of this performance of the War Requiem.  Stylistically, Britten’s and Verdi’s idioms could hardly be more different, but Maestro Jansons clearly recognizes the kinship between these monumental works by composers for whom the workings of conventional religion were suspect at best.  Maestro Jansons’s approach to the War Requiem allows full expression of the work’s spirituality without risking dissolution into didactic politicizing or doleful wallowing.  Melodic strands are individualized but paced from the perspective of comprehension of their places in the overall structure of the score.  Dramatic outbursts by the soprano soloist, cantorial passages from the tenor soloist, and choral episodes both intimate and grandiose are managed with equal skill, the firm rhythmic pulse of Maestro Jansons’s conducting proving particularly vital in the ‘Dies iræ’ and ‘Libera me.’  Both the performance as a whole and the inherent effectiveness of Maestro Jansons’s concept of the War Requiem, as well as his execution thereof, could hardly have such poignant impact without the superb recorded sound provided by BR-Klassik: balances are rendered carefully within a warm, resonant acoustic, and only the enthusiastic applause at the end of the performance betrays the ‘live’ circumstances of the recording.

There is indeed much in the singing and playing of the Tölzer Knabenchor and the Chor and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks to applaud.  Despite their achievements in a large repertory, mastering Britten’s writing for boys’ choir in the War Requiem cannot be an effortless task even for the boys of the Tölzer Knabenchor, but the beauty and emotional immediacy of their singing in this performance are breathtaking.  These are no cold angelic voices pontificating from on high: these are the voices of fully-engaged participants in the horrors of war and the comforts of the peace that come after, children displaced and disinherited by events over which they have no control.  The boys’ singing in ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ is poised and intensely beautiful but not merely for the sake of being pretty.  There are always risks involved with writing for boys’ voices, and Britten makes great demands of the boys’ choir in the War Requiem—demands that are met magnificently by the Tölzer Knabenchor.  In the first three decades of their existence, when they were under the direction first of Eugen Jochum and then of Rafael Kubelík, the choral and orchestral forces of Bayerischen Rundfunks made sterling contributions to the discographies of several major record labels, a tradition that was continued under Sir Colin Davis and Lorin Maazel.  Since Maestro Jansons took the helm of the Orchestra in 2003, the global economic downturn has reduced or in some cases eliminated opportunities to record for major labels, so Bayerischen Rundfunks joined some of their enterprising musical counterparts by launching a ‘house’ label in order to spotlight the exceptional work that the BR musicians continue to do.  This performance of the War Requiem—not a work in which the BR forces might have been expected to exude total confidence—confirms that both the choristers and the instrumentalists have absorbed the legacy of decades past and perform on superb form.  The BR choristers match the top-quality singing of the Tölzer Knabenchor, maintaining perfect intonation even when direly tested by Britten’s part writing.  The choral singing is supported by an awesome account of Britten’s score by the BR Symphonieorchester, every player knowing his or her part and executing it confidently.

Singing the soprano solos composed for Galina Vishnevskaya but first sung by Heather Harper, Emily Magee is a tremendous asset in this War Requiem.  Hers is not the sort of instrument for floating tones in the upper register, but she sings with power and far greater security than many of the sopranos heard in this music, occasional moments of uncertain intonation notwithstanding.  A few of the part’s highest notes are not completely comfortable for Ms. Magee, but the drive with which she places tones above the staff is arresting.  Lyric sopranos have sung the music with success, but Ms. Magee’s is the kind of voice that forcefully conveys the ultimate triumph of peace.  Mark Padmore fills the tenor lines written for Sir Peter Pears with his usual intelligence and plangent tone.  Like Pears, Mr. Padmore is an accomplished practitioner of the art of English Song, and much of the emotional directness of his performance is derived from the fluidity with which he sings Wilfred Owen’s verses.  Settling quickly after a slightly shaky start, Mr. Padmore unites his verbal acumen with polished-gold tone.  He is as insightful an interpreter of Britten’s music as Pears and has a more beautiful voice, and these qualities combine in a moving performance of the tenor solos.  Christian Gerhaher’s voice and artistry are often compared to those of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for whom Britten conceived the baritone solos, and he ably honors his countryman’s history with this music by singing warmly.  When the vocal lines take him above the staff at full volume, Mr. Gerhaher’s tone occasionally loses its firm core, but his singing is mostly lovely and sure of pitch.  Only a few of his enunciations display a slight accent, and he phrases thoughtfully throughout the performance.  In passages in which Britten set the tenor and baritone lines in duet, Mr. Gerhaher complements Mr. Padmore captivatingly.  Mr. Gerhaher does not shrink from a suggestion of harshness in the voice when delivering some of Owen’s darker lines, but his singing repays the trust that Britten placed in the famously sensitive artistry of Fischer-Dieskau.

Sir Winston Churchill wrote that World War II was ‘no war of chieftains or of princes’ but rather one ‘of people and of causes,’ of countless heroes ‘whose names will never be known, whose deeds will never be recorded.’  Now, almost seventy years after the end of the War, the perspicacity of Churchill’s observations is more apparent than ever.  Despite his very different perspective, Benjamin Britten also possessed a comprehension of the War as both a machine of unparalleled destruction and a thief that robbed him of beloved friends.  The pain and bitterness of loss were woven into every page of the War Requiem, but they were tempered by a pragmatic sense of survival; not so much a product of conventional faith as of the very British notions of picking up, dusting off, and carrying on.  Before the false concept of ‘closure’ gained currency in psychological discourse, the honorable response to devastation was to rebuild and renew, and these are the qualities with which Britten endowed his War Requiem.  Britten created an appropriately noble commemoration of the nameless heroes of his own and all times, and this radiant Bayerischen Rundfunks performance reveals that the War Requiem’s musical homage to the unrecorded deeds of those who sacrifice in the pursuit of peace is as inspiring in Munich as in Manchester, Minneapolis, or Manila.