Benjamin Britten: War Requiem, Op. 66
Erin Wall (soprano), Mark Padmore (tenor), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, CBSO Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, Andris Nelsons (conductor)
Recorded live at Coventry Cathedral, (May 30, 2012) – 97’
Arthaus Musik 108 070 – Picture format: 1080i 16:9 – Sound format: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD MA 5.1 – Region free – Subtitles in English, German, French, and Spanish – Blu-ray disc and booklet with an essay in English, French, and German
Discs like these make it hard to overstate the impact Blu-Ray has had on classical music. Since the advent of the Compact Disc, there have been several attempts to upgrade to a higher-quality format for enjoying music at home. Remember the Mini-Disc? Blu-Ray appears here to stay and its advantage as a format for both high-definition video and audio makes it an ideal medium for classical music. The concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s iconic War Requiem would be an auspicious event worth commemorating in high-definition and, aside from being an aural and visual pleasure, this War Requiem, led by Andris Nelsons, is an artistic triumph.
As far as War Requiems go, it is hard to compete with the first recording, led by the composer himself. This performance, featuring the orchestra that premiered the work, deserves to join its company. The contrasts and transitions between sections are so effectively done that the slower tempi seem all the more drastic and dramatic. Take, for example, the transition between the “Liber Scriptus” and “Out there, we walked quite friendly up to death.” The shift in textures couldn’t be better captured sonically and the brisk playing in the latter movement by the chamber orchestra is biting in its precision. The ensuing sink into a lyrical and breathtakingly beautiful “Recordare,” sung by the women of the chorus, is a comforting respite. In all, this is a roller coaster of a War Requiem, but it is successful by the sheer capability and conviction of the artists.
Conductor Andris Nelsons gets too much screen time, seeing as he is usually looking downward at his score, but his results are convincing. He is able to coax the most lyrical and then the most ferocious sounds from his forces. The chorus’ diction is impeccable, particularly in a movement such as the “Confutatis” where the plosive consonants are unmistakable. The brass in the “Dies Irae” are thunderous and piercing. Speaking of that “Dies Irae,” its slower tempo is even more affecting in its reprise after “Be slowly lifted up,” its terror unavoidable. The freedom that Nelsons gives the music to accelerate and slow is well-planned as in the “Tuba mirum,” set to the “Dies irae” motive, that is even more labored than its predecessor. Nelsons’ approach is fresh and completely convincing.
While all three soloists are more than satisfactory, there is one standout, tenor Mark Padmore. For fans of his, this will not be a surprise. His wholly theatrical delivery is exceedingly moving as one can see his entire body involved in the text with meaningful gestures and engaging eye contact. The look he gives his comrade towards the end of “Strange Meeting” when the baritone sings “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” is perfectly captured on video and exceedingly moving as the core motive for the entire piece. “Move him into the sun” is masterful in Padmore’s ability to draw the listener in in such a large acoustic. His youthful and clear tenor sound delivers the text with clarity. Soprano Erin Wall possesses a powerful voice with enough focus to sing Britten’s treacherous lines with fine accuracy, as in the “Liber scriptus” with its wide leaps. She is most successful in her moving contribution to the lamenting “Lacrimosa,” but her voice is large and versatile enough to be an enticing member of the trio. Baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann possesses a somewhat dry sound, but is warm enough with a bracing top range. He tends to round out his vowels towards the passaggio and is not as engaging a performer as his counterparts, but sings Owen’s texts with knowing confidence.
Chorus and orchestra are supremely expert at this music and it would be hard to imagine better prepared or informed forces for this work. The chorus fills Coventry Cathedral with an awesome power at the conclusion of the “Sanctus” and their reduction to near nothingness at the end of the “Lacrimosa” brings chills. Despite their size, their nimbleness in “Quam olim Abrahae” achieves transparency through the fugue. The orchestra plays with a leanness that serves the score well. Their sensitivity in the “Libera Me,” while supportive, is entrancing. Nelsons’ ability to judge the landscape of the textures to make the most terrifying impact serve the score so well here as the percussion drives ever forward to an unavoidable “Dies illa.”
As mentioned, this disc is a joy to the senses. The outstanding youth choir, singing from the back of the Cathedral, is heard from the rear channels in surround sound and blended beautifully with the front channels. This recording is a wonderful surround sound commitment of this piece which so decidedly deserves one. The results are a completely believable capturing of Coventry Cathedral’s acoustic. The camera work is beautiful, but some may find the alternation of cameras a bit distracting.
All told, this is a magnificent recording and a worthy celebration of one of the most important musical creations of the 20th-century. As the music from the final chord fades, the seemingly eternal silence in the Cathedral is spine-tingling as the occasion, originality, and power of the music is not lost on any one person who was fortunate enough to attend. We are indeed fortunate to be able to share in it through this recording.
Matthew Richard Martinez